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Chapter Thirteen— Rilke's House of Being
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Chapter Thirteen—
Rilke's House of Being

Philosophers love Rainer Maria Rilke because his poetry is filled with the issues they always talk about. He was obsessed with things —what they are, how we see them, the soul or essence that resides in some of them, how they regard us, and how some of them seem to transcend mere thinghood to inhabit a homey, familiar, human position in our human world. He wondered endlessly about one of the most fundamental philosophical problems: the nature of the interaction between subject and object. He wondered about the position that we occupy in our living, human world. And he wondered about being.

He wondered about all these questions in his poetry without writing overtly philosophical poetry. One of his most brilliant commentators, the German critic Käte Hamburger, thinks this is the quality that makes Rilke unlike any other poet. His poetry, she says, "is constituted in such a way as to be able to respond to philosophical questions—and this precisely because it is not philosophical poetry or poetry of ideas."[1] Rilke's poetry is not classic Gedankenlyrik (literally, "thought-lyric") of the sort we find in Schiller and Goethe, not poetry one makes by taking great thoughts and putting them into verse. No, says Hamburger, quoting in turn another Rilke scholar, Rilke's poetry is thought-lyric of another sort because it consists of a kind of "poetically creative shaping of thought" where making poetry and thinking are the same thing.

Rilke could accurately be called the ontologist's poet, if that name didn't have the effect of reducing him to a kind of plaything for tweedy, pipe-smoking academics. From early on, we find him puzzling over the


nature of the things we are surrounded by. Things of all sorts occupied his thoughts: art things, home things, living things, indifferent things in nature. He is the author of several collections of poems often referred to as Dinggedichte, "thing-poems," in which the poet focuses his vision on a thing and on the interaction between that thing and the subject perceiving it. Often the thing is an art object. Sculptures especially interested him. Hamburger and Paul de Man have both pointed out that Rilke's characteristic trick in these poems is to perform a reversal of subject and object, ascribing selfhood to things, as Hamburger puts it, or locating in the object the inwardness we normally associate with the subject, as de Man puts it.[2] Rilke's interest in the subject-object problem is neither psychological nor purely epistemological. It is deeply ontological. The unusual reversal Rilke operates, his tendency to project the soulfulness of the human subject onto the inert object, shows an impassioned urge to explore the being of both subject and object, the different worlds the two inhabit, and the reasons for their complete separation. Hamburger expresses this eloquently in her book on Rilke. The "effort expended towards overcoming the strangeness, the separateness of man who says 'I'and the being outside of him" is in Hamburger's view the "fundamental problematic" of Rilke's poetry. Rilke's task, she believes, is "to recognize and name what is [das Seiende, literally "the being"]." The activity of the self that is described in Rilke's poetry is "grasping the being and being-thus of the 'I.'"[3]

The Duino Elegies, which Rilke wrote between 1912 and 1922, offer some of the deepest meditations ever written on being and transcendence, being-in-life and being-in-death. As always, Rilke can write about these things in the most intimate and familiar of tones. "For it appears that everything / makes us at home. See, the trees are ; the houses / that we dwell in, are still there."[4] "Doesn't the world-space, / in which we dissolve ourselves, taste of us?" (Sä217.3200mt. W, 1:690). "Being-here is magnificent" (Sämt. W, 1:710). "Nowhere, beloved, will world be but within. Our / life goes there with transformation. And smaller and smaller / shrinks the outside" (Sämt. W, 1:711). The tenth, and final, elegy presents a landscape of what the poet envisions as life, but life that has accepted death as part of it. Rilke, like Heidegger after him, cherished the idea of a human life that tends in the direction of death in a way that blurs the boundary between the two (Heidegger's Sein zum Tode, "being-toward-death").[5] His landscape is inhabited by a race of creatures called laments (Klagen), and in it we see the same things we see in our own world, except in Rilke's world they are lament-things. The


whole vision is extraordinary for its vividly presented dual quality: the poet has taken our world-space and superimposed on it another one with a spiritual dimension that defies exact description but whose presence we feel like a warm breeze. Ontology has to do with the space or world we dwell in, and for Rilke, as for Valéry, ontological questioning involves a questioning of space and world.

In a poem he wrote in 1914, Rilke came up with a name for the realm where the interaction between us and the outside takes place—Weltinnenraum, or "world-innerspace":

Through all beings stretches the  one  space:
World-innerspace. The birds fly quietly
through us. Oh, I who wish to grow,
I look out, and inside  me the tree grows.

I care, and the house stands inside me.
I take refuge, and refuge is inside me.
Lover that I became, on me rests
the image of lovely creation and weeps and weeps.
(Sämt. W,  2:93)

This is the place where everything comes together, where those recalcitrant things from the outer world settle within us, where they are zu Hause, at home.

So far I've spoken only about the ontological character of Rilke's vision. What about the ontology of artworks? As it happens, there is a place where Rilke talks explicitly about the mode of being of artworks. For six months in 1902 and 1903 Rilke enjoyed an arrangement under which he lived as a kind of disciple of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin, observing the artist at work and talking to him for several hours every day. In December 1902 he completed work on a monograph about Rodin, which was published in March 1903. Later, in 1905 and 1906, he served as Rodin's personal secretary, and in 1907 he supplemented his earlier monograph with a second one. The two pieces were published together and titled simply Auguste Rodin . They are often referred to as the Rodin notebooks.[6]

Rodin is sometimes credited with fostering in Rilke his devotion to things. I don't know whether Rodin really deserves this credit or whether Rilke would have come up with the idea on his own, but there is no doubt at all that things are in the forefront of consciousness in the Rodin notebooks. Rilke starts off the second one, which was originally given as a lecture and not intended to be connected with the first one, by


inviting his readers (listeners) to ponder things. He tells us to think of a thing from our childhood, a thing we spent a lot of time with, and asks if there was anything "closer, more intimate, more needed" than this thing. He offers a mythical history of human things, speaking of the moment when man first began to make his own things, of how a human thing would suddenly take on "the traces of a threatened, open life," would be "still warm from it," and would then go to take its place among other things in the world, adopting "their composure, their quiet dignity" (Sämt. W, 2:210). He moves on to talk about Rodin, always using the word thing for the master's artworks. As you look at his works, Rilke says, "you see men and women, men and women, and still more men and women. And the longer you look, the more simplified even this content becomes, and you see: things" (Sämt. W, 5:215).

This is the subject of the Rodin notebooks: things and art things, their mode of being in the world and how they are distinguished from one another. As art things take up residence in the midst of ordinary things, they stand out largely for the way they are closed off from the world of nature at the same time as they inhabit that world. Rilke reflects on how Rodin must have come to realize that works of sculpture in this age were no longer associated, as they used to be, with buildings, like cathedrals, that served as a natural habitat for them. In modern times, says Rilke, the work of sculpture has had more and more to stand on its own. "It was a thing that could exist for itself alone, and it was good to give it the essence of a thing, one that people could walk around and look at from all sides. And yet it had to distinguish itself somehow from other things, from the ordinary things that one may confront head-on and touch. It had to become somehow untouchable, sacrosanct, cut off from chance and time, in which it rose up, lonely and wonderful, like the face of a clairvoyant" (Sämt. W, 5:149). What makes art things different from ordinary things? Rilke's answer is surprisingly similar to Valßry's. It all has to do with inner laws and relations. He says that people have recently come to see, for painting at least, "that an artistic whole need not necessarily coincide with the wholeness of an ordinary thing, that, independently of ordinary things, new unities arise within the image, new combinations, relations, balances. It is no different in sculpture. It falls to the artist to make one thing out of many and out of the smallest part of a thing to make a world" (Sämt. W, 5:164).

Rilke repeatedly stresses the separateness of art things, the way they seem to be closed off from the outside, forming a private world that is different from the space they occupy in the world of ordinary things.


Here is what he says about The Burghers of Calais, a Rodin sculpture representing a group of six figures: "Like all groups in Rodin's work, this one, too, was closed on itself, it was its own world, a whole filled with a life that circles around but nowhere spins off and disappears" (Sämt. W, 5:193). Describing the way a sculpture gradually takes shape under Rodin's hands, he says this: "To reproduce a thing meant to have gone over every place on it, having concealed nothing, having overlooked nothing, having nowhere been dishonest; to know all the hundred profiles, all the views from above and all the views from below, every point of intersection. Only then did a thing exist, only then did it become an island, detached everywhere from the continent of the uncertain" (Sämt. W, 5:217). And here is how Rilke describes Rodin's "acquisition of space": "Once again it was things that looked after him. . . . They repeated to him every time a lawfulness that they were filled with and that he gradually came to grasp. They granted him a glance into a mysterious geometry of space that allowed him to appreciate how the contours of a thing must arrange themselves in the direction of certain mutually inclined planes, so that this thing would actually be accepted by space, so that space, as it were, would recognize it in all its cosmic autonomy" (Sämt. W, 5: 219–20). Rilke's concluding vision of Rodin's work focuses once again on the notion of worlds: "In a colossal arch he raised up his world above us and set it in Nature" (Sämt. W, 5:242).

The closest Rilke comes to an ontology of poetry or literary artworks is in the Sonnets to Orpheus, which he wrote in 1922 and which explore something very much like world-innerspace, but specifically in the context of song. Orpheus, the bard who charmed all nature with his song, has become here the bard of being for Rilke, the poet who shapes a world inside us with his song: "There rose a tree. 0 pure overrising! / O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in my ear!" (Sämt. W, 1:731). Orpheus's song has the power to make a world that pervades everything:

And almost a girl it was and emerged
from this bliss of song and lyre
and gleamed brightly through her spring veil
and made herself a bed in my ear.

And slept in me. And everything was her sleep.
(Sämt. W,  1:731)

"Song is existence," the poet triumphantly proclaims, using the word Dasein, which literally means "being there" (Sämt. W, 1:732). Orpheus is a creature who dwells in "both realms." In the myth, when his wife,


Eurydice, died, Orpheus so charmed the gods with his song that he was permitted to seek her in Hades and return to the world of the living with her, provided only that he not look back on the way out. Naturally, he looked back and lost her. But this episode put him in the privileged position of having dwelt briefly in the land of the dead, which for Rilke means that he is one of those beings for whom death has been incorporated into life. "Is he from around here? No, from both / realms his wide nature sprang" (Sämt. W, 1:734).

There is something amazingly modern about all this talk of worlds and space and being and existence. Not the least amazing thing about it is that Rilke was not in touch with philosophy, in the academic sense, and yet if we consider the central issues in early twentieth-century thought, they all are there in his work. Käte Hamburger sees the same concern for essences in Rilke's poetic vision as in Husserlian phenomenology, the same desire to penetrate to the inner core of obects—Wesensschau, "essence-vision," she calls it. As I mentioned in chapter 6, Husserl sought a method that would allow philosophers to bracket away the presuppositions that naturally accompany an act of perception so as to arrive at the very essence of the contact between consciousness and the phenomenon that presents itself to consciousness. The human subject in Rilke shows the same tendency when he peers into the interior of an object and pretends to see there the soul that is apparently missing in himself.

Hamburger also finds the same structure of consciousness implicit in Rilke's poetry as the one Husserl describes in his writings. For Husserl, consciousness is always intentional, always directed toward something, always consciousness of something. Hamburger sees the same notion in Rilke, where the most characteristic situation is one of polarity between the self and what it confronts.

Husserl's pupil, Martin Heidegger, was an admirer of Rilke's poetry; hence any affinities between Heidegger and Rilke are a great deal less surprising than those between Husserl and Rilke. I mentioned the notion of being-toward-death that Heidegger introduces in Sein und Zeit (Being and time) and that so closely resembles the idea of death that Rilke advanced in the Duino Elegies . The brief outline I gave in Chapter 10 of Heidegger's ontology should make it clear that Heidegger's concerns were close to Rilke's. In 1946 Heidegger wrote an essay about Rilke titled "Wozu Dichter?" in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the poet's death.[7] The title comes from a line in a famous poem by the German romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin:"und wozu Dichter in dürf-


tiger Zeit," which means something like "and what's the use of poets in needy times?" Needy times for Heidegger has to do with the absence of God in the modern era. Heidegger speaks of "the fault of God" (der Fehl Gottes), which means "that no god visibly and unequivocally gathers men and things to himself any more, ordaining out of such a gathering the history of the world and man's sojourn in it" (p. 248). Poets are "the mortals who in all gravity, celebrating in song the god of wine, trace the tracks of the gods who have escaped, stay on their track and thus continue tracking the way for their kindred mortals up to the turning point" (p. 250). Is Rilke such a poet in such a time? Needy times for Rilke meant times when the "unconcealedness of the essence of pain, death, and love were missing." Rilke, according to Heidegger, was able to experience this unconcealedness personally (pp. 253–54).

Heidegger appears to be ascribing to Rilke some sort of religious vision that allowed him to escape the spiritual barrenness of godless times. In doing so, he is pointing to the very crux of the flight from Eden. Heidegger's thought is religious in its origins, as I've said before, and one school of Heideggerian thought actually uses Heidegger as the basis for a modern theology. But Heidegger is careful to avoid anything that sounds explicitly theological, and so he stays with the ontological vocabulary that is characteristic of him. This hesitation between theology and ontology is what makes him a quintessential "twentieth-century thinker," and it is what he claims to see in Rilke. In fact, so strong is Heidegger's desire to see a kindred spirit in Rilke that, in the phrase I just referred to, when he comes to mention the "unconcealedness" Rilke experienced, he doesn't talk about "essence of pain, death, and love," as he had a paragraph before. Instead, he says that Rilke experienced the "unconcealedness of being" (das Seiende), a thoroughly Heideggerian phrase. One of the central terminological distinctions in Heidegger—in fact, a distinction that is arguably at the root of his philosophical enterprise—is the one between Sein and das Seiende. Sein (the verb to be used as a substantive and usually translated as "Being," with a capital B ) is the more embracing term for being in its broadest and most indefinable sense, whereas das Seiende (the present participle, "being"—that is, something in the process of performing the action of the verb to be —used as a substantive and usually translated as "being," with a lowercase b ) refers to that-which-is, to things that, well, are . Here is a typical statement Heidegger makes about Rilke: "Rilke names Nature, in as much as it is the foundation [Grund ] of the being [das Seiende ] that we ourselves are, the fundamental foundation [Urgrund ]. This indi-


cates that man reaches farther into the foundation of being than does any other being. The foundation of being has always been named Being [Sein ]. The relation between founding Being and founded being is the same for man as it is for plants and animals" (p. 257). From here Heidegger moves on to the notion of Wagnis, "venture," and the essay continues in the same manner. I'm not trying to make light of what Heidegger says or to pull the classic trick of enemies of culture who cite complicated material out of context so it will sound pretentious and ridiculous. I am neither giving a lesson in Heidegger nor mounting an assault on him. It's merely an effort to show that this prominent reader of Rilke saw ontology as the fundamental issue in Rilke's poetry. But the ontology Heidegger sees sounds like theology (substitute "God" for "Being"). Later on in the essay, after a lengthy passage on the theme of being, Being, and how language is the house of Being (a favorite notion of Heidegger's), he says that "for Rilke's poetry, the Being of being is metaphysically specified as worldly presence, which presence remains connected with representation in consciousness, whether this consciousness has the character of the immanence of the calculating faculty of representing or whether it has the character of an inward turn toward the heartily accessible Open" (pp. 286–87). The "worldly presence" of the "Being of being . . . metaphysically specified"—make a few substitutions and you have the doctrine of the Incarnation.

It has been said about Heidegger, even more than about Rilke, that he is not truly a philosopher but rather someone who thought about philosophical matters and then found an entirely new language in which to talk about them. Once again, I do not want to take a position on a question (whether Heidegger was a philosopher) that is not important for what I'm talking about here. It is beyond dispute, however, that Heidegger used a different language from the one that was traditional in academic philosophy. And it is also beyond dispute that that language has a great deal in common with Rilke's. For both of them, the characteristic gesture was the turn from the heights of speculative abstraction to the most concrete and familiar images of a world that is thoroughly human (and European). The presence of this gesture in Rilke's poetry is obvious. Heidegger is always ready to "ground" his discussion of the Being of being and all his other impossibly cumbersome constructs in the familiarly human with an expression like the house of Being . Who would ever expect to find such a phrase in, say, Kant? At the same time, both Rilke and Heidegger show an essentialist vision that, though pretending to flee from the spiritual world of an earlier, Christian Europe,


seems ever drawn back to it. When Rilke sought to evoke the "space," the mode of being, of Rodin's artworks, he chose the word sakrosankt . This wording can hardly be an accident.

De Man and De Trut

We find ourselves coming back to the idea that the poets were there first: if modern criticism has been interested in poets of that era, maybe it's because it got its methods from them and ended up just looking at itself. And looking at itself and knowing that it was looking at itself (remember that phrase of Mr. Head, who, while being, looked at himself looking at himself?) increasingly made modern criticism think that selfreferenriality was itself a pretty interesting thing to talk about, and so it began to talk about language and how language never does anything but refer back to itself. Which refers us back to Part I of this book, where we looked at how language became a subject of criticism (which is nothing more than language about other language).

Actually, it refers us back to the very beginning of this book, to the Introduction, where we talked about those modern critics who have made their way into the popular press with the idea that literature is nothing more than subterfuge. After the revelation was made late in 1987 that Paul de Man had written for a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper during World War II, the popular press for months was full of ankles about the great academic scandal. James Atlas wrote an article about the affair in the New York Times Magazine in August of 1988. The article contains an amusing story about Paul de Man, amusing mostly because it makes fun of de Man's European accent. One time, after a class with his Yale colleague Geoffrey Hartman, de Man is alleged to have said, "We've had beauty. Now let's have de trut."[8] The master player of the game of subterfuge, the art of concealment and evasion, was Paul de Man. He played it in his writing when he refused to issue an interpretation of a text on the grounds that the text was merely selfreferential. He made it the subject of his writing when he showed how texts evaded interpretation because they were merely self-referential. And, of course, he played it in his life when he surfaced in this country as a complete unknown after World War II and went on to enjoy a long and brilliant academic career without telling anyone "de trut" about the person he had been before. But I'm not here to talk about "de man." I'm here to talk about his work.


One of de Man's finest examples of the self-referentiality of texts was Rilke. In "Tropes (Rilke)" de Man argues his way from pointing out Rilke's characteristic reversals to claiming that Rilke's poetry is ultimately about language and that it thus asserts the complete failure of language to mean anything. "The determining figure of Rilke's poetry," de Man says, "is that of chiasmus, the crossing that reverses the attributes of words and of things. The poems are composed of entities, objects and subjects, who themselves behave like words, which 'play' at language according to the rules of rhetoric as one plays ball according to the rules of the game."[9] The world Rilke has created "is then explicitly designated as a verbal world" with an "orientation towards the pole of language" (p. 39). De Man analyzes one of the poems from Rilke's Neue Gedichte (New poems) called "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes." The poem is about Orpheus's ascent from the underworld with Eurydice. The important moment for de Man comes at the end, when Hermes, who has accompanied Orpheus on his journey, leaves Orpheus to return to the world of the living (after Orpheus has looked at Eurydice) and "follows Eurydice into a world of privation and nonbeing" (p. 47). Without any warning, de Man draws this extraordinary conclusion from the scene he has described:

On the level of poetic language, this renunciation [that is, Hermes's act of renunciation] corresponds to the loss of a primacy of meaning located within the referent and it allows for the new rhetoric of Rilke's "figure." Rilke also calls this loss of referentiality by the ambivalent term of "inwardness" (innen entstehen, Weltinnenraum, etc.), which then does not designate the self-presence of a consciousness but the inevitable absence of a reliable referent. It designates the impossibility for the language of poetry to appropriate anything, be it as consciousness, as object, or as a synthesis of both.
(p. 47)

So everything is language, nothing is determinate, everything is awash in polyvalence, and Rilke proves it. What's more, he seems to believe it. Of course, this is an extravagant thing to say, and anyone other than de Man would be hard put to find this idea in this poem (or "designated" by this poem). Furthermore, as we saw earlier, de Man's worldview is not so polyvalent and indeterminate as he might lead us to think, since it is anchored in a fervent faith in the specificity of poetic language (when it comes to language, de Man calls his private Eden "rhetoricity"). In any case, if we are looking for the idea that de Man sees in Rilke's poem, we will find it sooner in Heidegger and the notion of the hermeneutic circle . This concept, which I mentioned in the Introduction, is


from Heidegger's Being and Time, and it has to do with how, when we interpret something, we must already understand what we are trying to interpret, with the result that understanding and interpretation move in what appears to be a vicious circle. De Man talks about this question early in Blindness and Insight, and his intimacy with Heideggerian thought in general is apparent in his writings.

What we do find in Rilke is ontology. We find it in the problematic nature of the interaction between human subject and the subject's world, something de Man has described so well in his analysis of reversals in Rilke's poetry. And we find it in the idea of Weltinnenraum, something de Man completely, but predictably, misunderstands (or was blinded to, as he would say). Ontology is one thing that attracted Heidegger to Rilke; it's what they have in common both with each other and with de Man. Once he's convinced that the world is deprived of faith, the Heideggerian can always turn to Being as the object of his essentialist yearning. And Rilke, the most religious irreligious poet that ever lived, is always there to serve as an example.

So what happens is something like this: We begin with Rilke and dwell with him in the "house of Being." This leads us to reflect on ontology. For Heidegger and de Man, ontology is inextricably caught up with hermeneutics and the idea of interpretation. De Man, in fact, declares that the hermeneutic circle is at the basis of Being and Time . From the idea of hermeneutics we arrive with de Man at the circularity of language and the indeterminacy and polyvalence of all meaning. And from the idea that interpretation and understanding are circular we arrive at the idea that poetry and criticism are not really so different. This was one of de Man's favorite ideas, and, as it happens, he introduces it, in Blindness and Insight, precisely within the discussion of the hermeneutic circle. I quoted from that discussion in the Introduction, and it is worth repeating: "The relationship between author and critic does not designate a difference in the type of activity involved, since no fundamental discontinuity exists between two acts that both aim at full understanding; the difference is primarily temporal in kind. Poetry is the foreknowledge of criticism. Far from changing or distorting it, criticism merely discloses poetry for what it is."[10]

And so here we are, back at Rilke, who gives us the idea that . . . well, it's no use repeating it, because we'll just be starting all over again, with books about books about books. About books.


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Chapter Thirteen— Rilke's House of Being
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