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 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

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Percentage of registered Democrats who say that fishing is their favorite spectator sport:

1.8

Democrats would win more elections if black Americans died at the same rate as white Americans.

A former U.S. intelligence official said pornography constituted 80 percent of the material on jihadists’ seized laptops, and Starbucks and McDonald’s made porn inaccessible from their Wi-Fi networks.

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