I’m pleased to have a guest post today at Daisy Hickman’s Sunny Room Studio on the spiritual insights and strength I’ve drawn from a number of thinkers, especially Eckhart Tolle, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Virginia Woolf. They’ve given me “fragments to shore against my ruins,” as T.S. Eliot put it in his poem “The Waste Land.”
Tag Archives: Rainer Maria Rilke
Spirituality, authenticity & Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.
— Letters to a Young Poet
As a broody kid, growing up in a Florida beach town and grieving my family’s exodus from our farm in Georgia, I found a library book by a guy about his hobby farm. I loved it, probably sensing how both my father’s and my own loss might be redeemed. I shared it with Dad. When I asked him what he thought he said, “I think he wanted to write a book.” Nothing else—Dad was always as concise as a telegram—but I grasped the devastating judgment in his unsparing remark.
Writers trying to wrest from their guts that necessary, handmade, human thing called art, which involves (among other things) seeking to see more clearly their lives and those of their fellow humans, might enjoy Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s a slender book, some forty pages, with many admirers and much resonance. Rilke was only twenty-seven, already becoming famous in Germany as a lyric poet, when in 1903 a boy in a military school wrote to him for advice. Rilke had spent five miserable years himself in the same school. His precepts, delivered over an eight-year period, float free of whatever experience or thought process produced them. Yet his judgments feel no less true for lacking explanation.
That’s for you to fill in—you with your private inner inquiry into gender, artistic authenticity, human nature, spirituality, and the concept and definition of what might be termed God.
A key Rilke passage:
Perhaps there is over everything a great motherhood, as a common longing. The loveliness of the virgin . . . is motherhood foreboding and preparing itself, uneasy and yearning. And the mother’s beauty is serving motherhood, and in the old woman there is a great memory. And in the man too there is motherhood, it seems to me, physical and spiritual; his begetting is also a kind of birth-giving, and it is birth-giving when he creates out of his innermost fullness. And perhaps the sexes are more akin than we suppose, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maiden, freed from all false feelings and perversions, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will unite as human beings to bear in common, simply, seriously and patiently, the heavy sex that has been laid upon them.
This is strikingly reminiscent to me of Virginia Woolf’s notion of artistic androgyny with which she concludes A Room of One’s Own, and Rilke’s ideas elsewhere mirror her concept in her essay “Moments of Being” of authentic presence. Everywhere he confirms, completes, and foreshadows manifold later spiritual insights. It appears, for instance, that another German mystic, Eckhart Tolle, owes Rilke a great debt, especially in Tolle’s profound spiritual synthesis A New Earth.
Like Tolle, Rilke advises inner communion instead of identification with ego and form: “What is needed is, in the end, simply this: solitude. Going into yourself and meeting no one for hours on end,—that is what you must be able to attain. To be alone, as you were alone in childhood, when the grown-ups were going about, involved with things which seemed important and great, because the great ones looked so busy and because you grasped nothing of their business.”
Unlike Tolle, he refers directly to God, though only twice and in a most contemporary and Tolle-like way. For Rilke, God appears to arise not from knowledge or even from faith but from intimations from the lost realm of childhood:
And if it dismays and torments you to think of childhood and the simplicity and stillness that goes with it, because you can no longer believe in God who is to be met with everywhere there, ask yourself . . . whether you have after all really lost God? Is it not much rather the case that you have never yet possessed him?
Rilke touches upon the adult task of defining God for yourself:
As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.
Of course Rilke wrote to a presumed believer in a time of presumed belief. The important ideas of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud were afoot but hadn’t yet crushed humans’ self-confidence. Nor had we yet put ourselves through two world wars and the Holocaust. After all that, unbelief and hostility to God and religion—and a pervasive doubt about our own species’ worth—became understandable. I have friends and family members across the spectrum, from those who become enraged at the mere mention of “God” or “religion” to those who dispense Jesus’ name like iodized salt. Just more evidence of humans’ long struggle against their own riven nature: a violent simian substrate; a gentler group mind from a long and at times Edenic evolution among extinct human-like ancestors; and greedy individual egos that arrived with the emergence of our shiny, anxious, hypersexual new species only 200,000 years ago.
Humanity’s puzzle and core dilemma—What does it mean to be human?—Rilke touches upon directly or by implication everywhere in Letters to a Young Poet as he works out for himself and for his acolyte his answers. This is all we can ask of any writer, his sincere testimony, expression seemingly driven by some personal necessity—for Rilke, necessity being art’s acid test. We crave the authenticity concentrated in the fruit of someone’s honest emergency. Oh, the struggle by writers to make something authentic from the necessity that impels them!
And the world’s listeners still draw near to lovely songs, like Rilke’s, that seem true.
Austin Kleon has an excellent blog post about the more writerly aspects of Letters to a Young Poet.
Here’s a writing tip from William Zinsser: get intention.
A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
In this blog largely about craft, sometimes I must remind myself that intention is more important than craft. That is, the spirit behind the work is at least as important as that which makes it visible. I saw this years ago in daily journalism, where craft was enshrined to avoid talking about the messy, subjective self (I wrote about this here in 2008, in “Between Self and Story“). Of course the self and its niceties cannot become manifest, cannot become art without . . . craft. Craft is the refinery that processes the ocean of self into the sweet elixir of art. So craft, sure—it’s what we can readily discuss. But who we are determines what we see and what we ponder, which determines what we write.
William Zinsser expresses this notion beautifully in The Writer Who Stayed, a compilation of his concise columns for The American Scholar. Here’s Zinsser on intention:
Tips can make someone a better writer but not necessarily a good writer. That’s a larger package—a matter of character. Golfing is more than keeping the left arm straight. Every good golfer is an engine that runs on ability, ego, determination, discipline, patience, confidence, and other qualities that are self-taught. So it is with writers and all creative artists. If their values are solid their work is likely to be solid.
In my own work I operate within a framework of Christian values, and the words that are important to me are religious words: witness, pilgrimage, intention. I think of intention as the writer’s soul. Writers can write to affirm and to celebrate, or they can write to debunk and destroy; the choice is ours. Editors may want us to do destructive work to serve some agenda of their own, but nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. We get to keep intention.
I always write to affirm. I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives. Much of my writing has taken the form of a pilgrimage: to sacred places that represent the best of America; to writers and musicians who represent the best of their art. Tips didn’t get them there.
Narrative craft & spirituality in a classic feminist essay.
Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.—A Room of One’s Own
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. Harcourt, 112 pp.
Like last year when I was at the beach, where I’ve been for the past few weeks, I remember I should have brought Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, what with the Atlantic surf hissing and breaking outside. Sometimes I feel almost frightened by what a ghost I feel here, so much time alone for memories to flood in of the boy I was and of my past friends, some dead or disabled and most scattered. A few people whom I’ve lost touch with are living quietly here where we grew up, and in my mind’s eye they are still eighteen. I wouldn’t know them if I saw them, yet part of me thinks I’d still be eighteen had I stayed here too. At the same time, the beach is magic—it’s the air, so mild, and the ceaseless murmur of the waves and the sun on the living and moving water. Perfect, really, for reading Woolf, that most retrospective of writers, who wrote often of the sea and of water. And so I reread A Room of One’s Own, which I did bring, and marveled anew at her foresight, her courage, her humor, and her artistry.
One might assume that this extended essay, six chapters that make a short book, would be didactic. But I’d noticed before how much Woolf unfolds her essay in scene. For instance, there’s always the track of her mind in a physical place—as she roams a public library or ponders a bookshelf in her home—and there are a series of sexist indignities she suffers while researching the book, which is famous for its dictum that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This time I noticed Woolf’s caveat about her scenic narrative approach, her “making use of all the liberties and licenses of a novelist” to show her audience how her topic consumed her and how she “made it work in and out of my daily life.” Great novelists are highly sensitive to the murky nature of memory and to the porous border between fiction and nonfiction; Nabokov and Updike made similar statements in their memoirs. In any case, a great move there on Woolf’s part, flagging her method and making her audience complicit in her imaginative approach. And there was at the start of A Room of One’s Own a very specific audience: two women’s colleges at Cambridge University, where Woolf delivered her book in a series of lectures in October 1928.
Having been asked to speak on “Women and Fiction,” Woolf tells the story of her process, beginning with being flummoxed by what in the world that topic meant and what to say about something so nebulous and vast. Soon we have her brilliant imagining of Judith Shakespeare, the genius sister she creates for William, and her fate. Which isn’t pretty. Indeed the midsection of A Room of One’s Own makes for uneasy reading by a man, despite Woolf’s ever-present tart humor. For we know those opening incidents might well have happened to her—the world’s great lyrical novelist and avatar of modernism chased off the grass at “Oxbridge” by the Beadle (women had to stay on the paths), then barred from the library (being unaccompanied and without a letter), and then too timid to risk entering the institution’s chapel. Thus she gives us experience along with then-radical ideas regarding the equality of women. And of course this resonates too because we know that Woolf herself wasn’t granted a formal university education by her philosopher father, who instead squandered higher education on her cretinous half brothers. Who’d bullied and molested her.
So it’s tough, this little book. But its transcendent reward comes in the final chapter, where Woolf argues that at base gender differences are a fiction of and for the small-minded. Quite simply, Woolf says, beyond that it is natural for the sexes to cooperate, artists must be conversant with their inner opposite sex. The creating mind must indeed be androgynous. Only those with this dual mind, those who partake in this “marriage of opposites,” she says, have a shot at writing with “suggestive power,” at making writing that has “the secret of perpetual life.” The book’s spiritual dimension soars here, so reminiscent of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with its insistence on the sexes’ deep commonality, their inner union. Woolf: “The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating.” For in the end, for anyone of either gender involved in creation, Woolf observes, “There must be freedom and there must be peace.”
I previously reviewed Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past.
The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths. In those moments I find one of my greatest satisfactions, not that I am thinking of the past; but it is then that I am living most fully in the present.—“A Sketch of the Past”
Virginia Woolf begins her “Sketch” by describing her earliest, joyous memories in infancy, those associated with her family’s beach house, St. Ives. She writes, “I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start. But the peculiarity of these two strong memories was that each was very simple. I am hardly aware of myself, but only of the sensation. I am only the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture.”
Woolf calls the forgotten rush of everyday life “non-being,” and contrasts this unconscious state with memorable moments—the hum of bees as she walked to the beach as a girl—that are often mysterious for being so ordinary and yet remembered. In these flashes of time she was conscious of being conscious, instead of “embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool” in which human days typically pass.
I mentioned in my last post the resonant hints of spirituality I find in Woolf’s concept. Here is an excerpt that shows what I mean:
As a child, then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton wool, this non-being. Week after week passed at St. Ives and nothing made any dint upon me. Then, for no reason that I know about, there was a sudden violent shock; something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life. I will give a few instances. The first: I was fighting with Thoby on the lawn. We were pommelling each other with our fists. Just as I raised my fist to hit him, I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me. I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness. I slunk off alone, feeling horribly depressed. The second instance was also in the garden at St. Ives. I was looking at the flower bed by the front door; “That is the whole”, I said. I was looking at a plant with a spread of leaves; and it seemed suddenly plain that the flower itself was a part of the earth; that a ring enclosed what was the flower; and that was the real flower; part earth; part flower. It was a thought I put away as being likely to be very useful to me later.
The sensitivity with which Woolf experienced life seems excruciating, as the passage underscores as it continues with the third example, of overhearing her parents discuss the suicide of a neighbor. Walking in the garden later, she stood before an apple tree, unable to pass it, “looking at the grey-green creases of the bark—it was a moonlit night—in a trance of horror.” This connecting an innocent tree with a man’s death, of being “dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair,” shows her torture as a person better than anything I’ve read.
“All her life,” writes Hermione Lee in her introduction to the Paris Press edition of Woolf’s On Being Ill, “she had to do battle with tormenting, terrifying mental states, agonising and debilitating physical symptoms, and infuriating restrictions.”
How she suffered for her sensitivity. But Woolf writes in “A Sketch” that “the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer.” Indeed, she says that when she wrote about the three above incidents, she realized for the first time consciously that one, the flower insight, ended in satisfaction. Even as a girl she felt she had made an important discovery with the flower, one she could return to, “turn over and explore.” And as an adult, even the blows that seemed to come from an enemy hidden in the cotton wool appeared to her a revelation of some sort, “a token of some real thing behind appearances.”
Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are part of the work of art.
To me this is spiritual, even as Woolf goes on to say emphatically that in these moments “there is no God”—nor Shakespeare nor Beethoven either—and she has also expressed what I see as the religious impulse—connection—and comes close to defining where I place God, inside humans as an evolutionary force impelling their search for goodness, truth, and justice. This is a very personal reading, of course, my receiving a thrilling hint, as when I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, of someone else working out the same problems that preoccupy me and arriving at the numinous.
Or, as Woolf says better: “. . . we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself . . . It proves that one’s life is not confined to one’s body and what one says and does; one is living all the time in relation to certain background rods or conceptions. Mine is that there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool. And this conception affects me every day.”
Woolf succumbed to mental illness and killed herself before she was able to put in “the horrid labour” she felt was necessary to make of her “Sketch” a work of art. I found an excellent short essay online by Nicole L. Urquhart, “Moments of Being in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction,” which discusses how Woolf tried to portray moments of being—episodes in which characters are conscious of being conscious—in her novels Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts.
Works of art are of an infinite solitariness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near to them than criticism. Only love can apprehend and hold them, and can be just towards them.—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I’ve just finished reading two new books on writing. One was brief, began well, and then wrecked. Worthless! Almost shameful, from a well-known writer. The other, a little longer, possesses some virtues but left me deeply peeved at its author. I’m not going to name them or their books, let alone damn them, because it’s just not worth it, to spend one’s energy that way. Rarely I do it, usually if the author’s dead and thus beyond caring. I so loathed a widely beloved novel a year or two ago that it was all I could do to refrain from yelping about what a horrible, nasty, awful thing it truly is. I harbor spiteful prejudice against its author, for sentimentally loving its sentimental narrator. Yet better writers and readers than I love the damn book.
Having recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a novel whose insights and narrative sweep and realized ambition astounded me, I’m glad I (mostly) held my tongue about that other novel. I was so eager to talk about Freedom that I urged it on friends, and even bought copies for three of them. Two liked it almost as much as I did. The third despised it, and Franzen. I felt my friend was unreasonable and projecting qualities to hate upon the writer and his book. That’s what I probably did with the novel I hated. (Except: I was right—it’s awful, the emperor has no clothes! Trust me.)
Freedom received one of the most glowing reviews ever published in The New York Times Book Review, by its editor, Sam Tanenhaus. And Franzen was canonized by Time, which put him on its cover with the headline “The Great American Novelist.” The hype got hackles up. Franzen has said he was surprised by how kind reviewers were to the book, since he expected they’d be laying for him after his 2001 mega-hit, The Corrections. Turns out, he should have been worried about Regular Joe Reviewers. There are many rave reviews of Freedom on Amazon, but so many angry one- and two-star screeds that its average rating was brought down to a modest three stars out of five. And many ugly things were said about Freedom in The New Yorker’s online book discussion group, surely an irony for Franzen, if he read them, because of his long association as a reporter and essayist for the magazine.
What my friend’s anger at Freedom showed me was that I can’t bank on
Amazon’s negative reviews—or even its positive ones—as reliable gauges of my reading experience. And more than that: it showed me how deeply personal and subjective our reading preferences are. Which I think is why the mainstream’s endangered reviewers are so valuable. Such folks are, or should be, I think, properly constrained by various existential pressures, which temper reviewers’ deeply personal reactions. It’s an art to write a mixed review; it’s easier, and more fun, to flay the hide off an author—some poor slob who spent years, nine in the case of Freedom, slaving to offer his gift to the world. Michiko Kakutani at the daily New York Times sometimes does this, I feel. She was cruelly harsh toward Franzen for his The Discomfort Zone, which I found a brave, funny book, but which seemed to trigger in her that odd outrage toward memoirists that afflicts many New York gatekeepers. I believe this is why Franzen called Kakutani, a Pulitzer winner, the stupidest person in the entire world. (Yet she adored Freedom, and to her credit, despite her prior review and Franzen’s comment, she raved.)
What is with this anger? What sets it off in so many of us? Some of it’s got to be wounded pride. Maybe some is genuinely offended taste—we’re proud of having taste, or a sense of art. But must we be so spiteful? Evidently some of us must, even though we’re talking about works of art here, not the criminal George W. Shrub administration or crass Hollywood revenge-fantasy movies.
I wonder what book you’ve loved despite the world’s negative opinion or hated unreasonably despite the herd’s vulgar affections? Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love seemed to set off many people on both sides of that gulch. I read it with growing annoyance, for it seemed dishonest to me, but had to marvel at her writing ability. Maybe that’s the thing about books: We also react to them like they’re people, and consider how few people become close friends, fewer still soulmates. How does one view and react to those who just aren’t one’s cup of tea? And how do you know when someone you actively dislike deserves it and when you’re just hating qualities in another that you possess yourself but can’t admit?
“Works of art are of an infinite solitariness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near to them than criticism. Only love can apprehend and hold them, and can be just towards them.”—Rainer Maria Rilke
Whether composing a poem, struggling with a memoir’s narrative structure, or trying to depict a city’s homelessness problem through one family’s struggle, a writer can be trying to offer a gift to the world. Therefore it’s fitting that an insightful essay on revision in The Writer’s Chronicle (March-April 2008) is by Catherine M. Wallace, who has explored spiritual themes in books such as For Fidelity and Selling Ourselves Short.
In “Care & Feeding of the Work in Progress” Wallace says fault-finding (from what she calls Harpies) doesn’t work. This runs counter to the notion that self-editing and feedback from others must be tough. A writer who is really trying, however, needs to know what’s working so she can focus there, Wallace says. “We need re-vision because our very best work comes from such deep levels of the psyche that we are never fully conscious of what we are doing. . . . To protect your work from Harpies, you have to be willing to imagine that there is more to reality than logical . . . processes. That’s a spiritual issue.”
Her first advice to writers is to be explicit about what they want from readers, which keeps them from dispensing general praise or engaging in egotistical fault-finding that often attacks a work’s most original aspect. I keep relearning that lesson myself, even as I have students write cover letters asking their peers to address specific concerns. I do tell them my rule of thirds: a third of suggestions are great, a third “maybe,” and a third crazy—this range often from the same reader.
Students, knowing how vulnerable classmates feel, do try to praise what they appreciate. But, after Wallace, I’ll give future classes two primary guidelines for workshopping:
• Underline words, phrases, sentences, passages that you love. Try to explain why.
• Tell us what you want to know more about. And put question marks at boring or confusing places, perhaps with a brief explanation.
Focusing on what works creates energy, says Wallace. “In such underlining, two souls can meet at an intensely creative level. The spark of the sacred in me can connect to the spark of the sacred in you. As we read, something profound in us, something deeply holy, can stir to life.”
I feel my role as teacher is to point out as well how ultimately every word choice, punctuation mark, line break, and paragraph return must extend and support the essay’s focus. At the conceptual level, however, Wallace believes that fixing things is a mistake: “muddled passages are usually growing edges,” and helping there stops growth only the writer can make.
Eventually a writer learns he must work until his story grows past being an ego extension to become a promising but frustrating external object. He can then begin to see it for what it is and what it might be. And he asks himself and a few trusted muses How can I make this better? How can I nudge this misshapen clay into something more beautiful?