No Comment, Quotation — August 22, 2009, 8:12 am

Rilke – the Duty to Those Who Follow

cezanne-portrait

Wie die Bienen den Honig zusammentragen, so holen wir das Süßeste aus allem und bauen Ihn. Mit dem Geringen sogar, mit dem Unscheinbaren (wenn es nur aus Liebe geschieht) fangen wir an, mit der Arbeit und mit dem Ruhen hernach, mit einem Schweigen oder mit einer kleinen einsamen Freude, mit allem, was wir allein, ohne Teilnehmer und Anhänger tun, beginnen wir Ihn, den wir nicht erleben werden, so wenig unsere Vorfahren uns erleben konnten. Und doch sind sie, diese lange Vergangenen, in uns, als Anlage, als Last auf unserem Schicksal, als Blut, das rauscht, und als Gebärde, die aufsteigt aus den Tiefen der Zeit. Gibt es etwas, was Ihnen die Hoffnung nehmen kann, so einstens in Ihm, in dem Fernsten, Äußersten zu sein?

As the bees collect honey, so we collect what is sweetest of all and build Him. Even with the trivial, with the imperceptible (so long as it is done out of love) we begin, with work and with the inner peace that follows it, with a silence or with a small isolated joy, with everything that we do alone, without anyone to participate or support us, we start Him whom we will not live to see, just as our ancestors could not live to see us. And yet they, who passed away long ago, still continue on in us, as inclination, as a charge upon our fate, as blood that whispers, and as gesture that rises up from the depths of time. Is there anything that can take from you the hope that you will someday continue in Him, the one of greatest remoteness and extremity?

Rainer Maria Rilke, Briefe an einen jungen Dichter, Dec. 23, 1903 (S.H. transl.)


One of the most impressive things about Rilke is his life as a letter writer. He often treated correspondence with utter seriousness, devoting every bit as much intellectual energy and passion to the polite inquiries of an aspiring young poet as he put into his own poetry and prose. The collection of Letters to a Young Poet are a remarkable treasury, and fairly well known, but a great deal of Rilke’s published correspondence exists and the quality of his writing is simply amazing–Rilke seems engaged in intense communication with his correspondent, but the value of his thoughts pass far beyond the daily cares of life into something truly transcendent. This is one of my favorite passages from one of the earliest and best known collections of Rilke letters. It develops a theme we see in several of Rilke’s works, notably including Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (1912), namely the great chain of being–an idea that emerged in classical antiquity. As Rilke develops it here, the chain of being is important for purposes of responsibility. To whom do we as actors in our lives owe a duty that provides moral definition to our conduct? The duty is not simply to our contemporaries. Like classical writers such as Seneca and Lucretius, Rilke says the duty also must be understood stretching over space and time to ancestors and those who preceded us and those who follow in our wake (not simply as progeny). Unlike the classical writers, however, Rilke also presents the chain of being as a source of artistic inspiration. And he interweaves it with a strikingly religious, Christian flavor with the personification of Christ as Beginning and End.


Listen to the tenth and eleventh movements of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 based on Rilke’s poem Der Tod des Dichters in a 1988 performance by I Musici de Montreal under Yuli Turovsky. Soprano Elizabeth Holleque and bass Nikita Storojev perform the vocals.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2016

Psychedelic Trap

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hamilton Cult

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Held Back

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Division Street

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Innocents

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quiet Car

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Hamilton Cult·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The past is complicated, and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble."
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell
Article
Division Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Perfectly sane people lose access to housing every day, though the resultant ordeal may undermine some of that sanity, as it might yours and mine."
Photograph © Robert Gumpert
Article
Held Back·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"'We don’t know where the money went!' a woman cried out. 'They looted it! They stole our money!'"
Artwork by Mischelle Moy
Article
The Quiet Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.

Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.

Photograph by Joshua Lutz
Article
Innocents·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion."
Photograph © Nadia Shira Cohen

Average number of new microwave food products introduced every day In 1987:

2

Cocaine addicts prefer $500 in cash now to $1,000 worth of cocaine later.

Scientists in the Galápagos Islands credited an endangered giant tortoise named Diego with saving his species by fathering more than 800 offspring.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today