How Rilke Might Steer You Wrong: Rilke 2/4

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Rilke seduces us with a sense of self-reliant freedom, suggesting that we can do anything we want, since all activities and interests yield equal results. . . 

The poetically-minded likely take inspiration from Rilke.


I was not unique as a  rebellious seventeen-year-old who defined myself against ‘the system’ (whatever that might have meant to me at the time).  I welcomed Rilke as a spiritual alternative to the  mechanical, systematized, bureaucratic life for which it seemed I was being groomed as a professional. 

As pointed out in a scathing critique by poet J.D. Mcclatchy, Rilke is one of those world-class poets whose poetic achievements have poured over into popular culture, especially the realm of New Age spirituality.

One reason for Rilke’s popularity among the self-help gurus is his appeal to authenticity, and to the notion that we possess an inner truth that—if we dig deeply enough—we’ll find, unlocking all we need to know about how to live our life in a moment of self-realization.

Rilke is the poet of longing and seeking—which he does in the company of angels. He’s a self-made holy man. In a world of rapid change, he shows one how to be stable. He presents a reliable self sanctioned by the gods because it’s Rilke’s self, his soul that makes the angels and gods. As—he tells his readers—they must, too. According to Rilke, we can find in ourselves what is stable, lasting, genuine, trustworthy, and noble. This is why some critics refer to Rilke as the last Romantic. 

Rilke’s Way of Life

Rilke set out to establish himself as a self-designed prophet. One might even say that was his goal in life: He wanted to triumph over the values of commercial society, and in so doing offer a path to salvation that did not depend on Christianity’s God, but  that spoke with spiritual authority to people who felt alienated from the  industrial ethos taking over all aspects of modernizing life, especially following World War 1. 

Here is Nobel Laureate Herman Hesse on Rilke:


“It [the phenomenon of Rilke] can be described in this way: in the midst of a period of violence and the brutal worship of strength, a poet becomes a favorite, indeed becomes a prophet and model, for a spiritual elite, a poet whose essence seems to be weakness, delicacy, devotion, and humility, who, however, turned his weakness into an impulse to greatness, turned his delicacy into strength, turned his psychic vulnerability and fear of life into a heroic asceticism. And this is the reason that Rilke’s letters and his personal life and his legend belong so very much to his work, because in his nature he is so very typical of what’s unprotected, homeless, uprooted, threatened, yes, suicidal in the spiritual man of our time. He prevails not because he was stronger but because he was weaker than the average; it is the sick and threatened quality of his nature that so powerfully summoned up and strengthened the healing, incantative, magical forces in him. And so he has become a beloved model for the spiritual man and artist who does not withdraw from suffering, who does not flee from and renounce his own time and its fears, nor his own weaknesses and dangers, but through them, a sufferer, achieves his faith, his ability to live, his victory.”

Your Weakness Can Become Your Strength

Rilke says take solace in your weakness and your sensitivity by using both to move you to create. Rilke is to industrialized society as Neo is to The Matrix.

Rilke ascribes the highest value to self-realization through self-expression. But there is danger in this approach, which is difficult to see because it’s masked by such good sense.

For example, returning to a section of the letter introduced last week, Rilke writes to his Mr. Kappus,

“No one can advise or help you—no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into it’s humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

Taking Action

The great virtue of this advice is the simple notion that we must practice what we deem necessary to live for. And we must do so in every area of our life. If we are a schoolteacher, we should be teaching every minute of every day. Or, what good does it do to be a monk in public if you don’t inwardly hold to the values you espouse in public? 

For Rilke, there is no separation between one’s private life and public responsibilities, no dividing our public and private interests. This is a tremendous feat to accomplish. And that he crafted his life and used his talent as he did is a large reason for his enduring cultural influence.

Digging Deep

On the other hand, reading this advice, one wonders: how, precisely, is it that one is to “Dig into yourself for a deep answer?” How does one know whether one has found that answer, and what guarantee exists that the answer one finds is, in fact, the best answer? What about the case for example, of a ten-year-old who digs deep into herself to answer that she must have a candy bar?

A parent must educate and explain to their child that there are perhaps better choices than eating candy all day, better options for her overall health and well-being. What is Rilke’s logic when he says that to declare what we must do, is to know, in fact, what we must do—as opposed to, say, what we can or what we want to do?  

For Rilke—a thing is good or ultimate for us if we make it so. The authority of his ‘must’ rests on the notion that we are free to determine our spiritual purpose and that we ourselves are ultimately responsible for the forms our lives take.

Rilke wants us to live as if we are the artists who create ourselves. And he very much did this with his own life. But whether or not we have such freedom, or choose to recognize ourselves as having such freedom, or choose to make such freedom an issue, posits a contradiction. 

Rilke says: “No one can advise or help you,” —but why does he write ten letters of advice if he doesn’t believe one can be advised?  

The First True Modernists

As an early modernist, Rilke wants to establish himself as independent of tradition, and as a person whose authority comes from his direct (i.e. pure, authentic, and genuine) experience of his being or soul—a state that stands beyond the influence of history and society.

According to Rilke, one must be deeply self-reliant. One must die to custom, and the help and advice of others. One must live in solitude and dig deeply into one’s isolation, until one finds, like a spring in the clay of one’s ignorance, a miraculous source from which life breaks out and flows forth. We must isolate ourselves and dig through all of our impurity and social pollution, raze ourselves down until we are clean and pure enough for truth to crack through us into life.

But what about those of us who are social? Who like to be with others? Who grow through sharing dinners together, and enjoying custom, conversation and collaboration, or those who respect and want to do well by their family, or who aren’t inclined to look deeply into themselves, but, prefer, rather, to emulate and to study the ways and life of God, or carpentry, or those who get to know themselves by learning how to garden and to cook?

Rilke’s Way Isn’t My Way

Rilke’s way may not be ours. We live for other things, other goods, and other ‘musts.’ And what I would say in contrast to Rilke is that in determining what we must do, there is no reason not to ask others. In my case, for example, I have turned to the wisdom of many others before me—masters and teachers of Buddhism, who, while not telling me what to do in a prescriptive, methodical sense, taught me how to study.

I am grateful to them, and would remain lost without their guidance, and I am glad that I listened to them because my life and my standards for life opened far beyond what I would have managed without them. And they do not contradict themselves. They do not say, “I cannot advise or help you,” and then proceed to do so. They are much more careful. They say, for example, “I cannot advise or help you in such and such a matter, but if I were you, in this case, at this time, and for this reason, I suggest doing this…” And such instruction is helpful.

Rilke the Poet and His Magnificent Myth

Rilke, however, seems to live by a kind of magnificent myth which tells us that when we dive deeply into ourselves, the truth miraculously appears. He lived with as much faith in his own, individual truth as one who lives with faith in God, or the goodness of their family, or the promise of a successful career to satisfy themselves.

It is the eternal and unanswerable question whether or not we have chosen life correctly—whether or not we have pointed our life in the best direction. Indeed, of what does Rilke’s ‘must’ consist? Is it what we enjoy? Is it determined by our family obligations? Is it determined by our passion for fame and glory? Riches? Perfect self-expression? The success of our partnered relationships?

Living among the plurality of moral goods—the myriad mental models and mindsets—that modern people do, how are we to choose among our ‘musts?’

Indeed, it seems, that we no longer do, in fact, choose. Rather, we try to do it all—so that our new must has become the must of “I must be able to do it all.”

We no longer ask ourselves what we must do. Instead, we tell ourselves that we can do it all, as if we can. ‘I should,’ has become, ‘I can’: a perfect recipe for burnout, which is perhaps why burnout has, in modern society, been deemed an epidemic.

Empty, Vague and Seductive

In short, Rilke’s advice is somewhat empty. It’s good insofar as it encourages us to put into practice and make concrete the ideals for which we say we want to live—however, he is very vague in helping us to sort through the kinds of thoughts that are helpful to adopt when considering the meaning and purpose of our lives.

Rilke seduces his readers with a sense of self-reliant freedom, suggesting that we can do anything we want, since all activities and interests yield equal results (for ourselves and others) and give back to our lives equally, when, in fact, if we think about it for just a moment, we realize almost instantly, that this cannot be true.

Why not simply put it like this: ask yourself what you find most enjoyable, what gives you the most energy? Then organize your life so that everything you do moves you closer to using as much time as you can doing what gives you energy.  

In the next post,  we’ll continue our contemplation of Rilke’s advice and what he means when he says, having determined what it is you must do: “Then come close to Nature.”

What does it mean to say— and how can you think about—“coming close to Nature” in a way that helps life flourish? 

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