Thursday, October 12, 2006

"Be grateful that no one knows you": Cautionary words for young writers from Rainer Maria Rilke

Call it a guilty pleasure: lately, whenever I can find the time, I have been sneaking in bits of Rilke's work into my reading, hitting upon various poems and prose pieces here and there. He was certainly a genius, and I find the language he uses vigorous and intoxicating, even in translation... this is not to say I understand everything I read by him, but it always seems to me to be worth the effort for the beauty and wisdom I find in his writing.

Here is an example of that wisdom that I thought my partner in this effort, Mutt, would appreciate. I just happened to come across them at random in one of his uncollected prose pieces -- in this case, an appreciation of the playwright Henrik Ibsen. Now I know Mutt very well and when he reads this his first reaction will be, "Ha! This doesn't apply to me; I'll never be in the situation he describes." But O Mighty Mighty Mutt, I beseech you to read on, read on, until you reach the end! Then let the profundity and wisdom of these off-hand comments, which seem to be only tangential to the main points Rilke was trying to make in the essay, work on your mind and heart a bit... I found them to be fascinating and insightful, and I hope you will too. Certainly, if nothing else, they give you a sense of the kind of mind Rilke had, and how seriously he took the craft -- no, the vocation -- of writing. And they might also serve as cautionary wisdom for young writers who may, in their sheer humanity, be tempted by the idea of "someday becoming famous." I'm not saying that's your temptation at all (in fact, see Mutt's oustanding "Journal" post, the one prior to this one, to learn all you need to know about what motivates him as a writer!), but I do think you'll appreciate his points... Anyway, it is the last two paragraphs that got my attention and made me want to share this, especially the astounding last lines.


[NOTE: These are the opening paragraphs of an essay simply titled "Ibsen".]

There I sat before your books, obstinate man, trying to understand them as the others do, who don't leave you in one piece but chip off their little portion and go away satisfied. For I still didn't understand fame, that public demolition of someone who is in the process of becoming, whose building-site the mob breaks into, knocking down his stones.

Young man anywhere, in whom something is welling that makes you shiver, be grateful that no one knows you. And if those who think you are worthless contradict you, and if those whom you call your friends abandon you, and if they want to destroy you because of your precious ideas: what is this obvious danger, which concentrates you inside yourself, compared with the cunning enmity of fame, later, which makes you innocuous by scattering you all around?

Don't ask anyone to speak about you, not even contemptuously. And when time passes and you notice that your name is circulating among men, don't take this more seriously than anything else you might find in their mouths. Think rather that it has become cheapened, and throw it away. Take another name, any other, so that God can call you in the night. And hide it from everyone.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

This is certainly a comfort to writers starting out, who don't think they'll have to deal with much 'notoriety' in the first place. Rilke certainly had some fascinating things to say about the artist's motives and methods....he was a sound voice for anyone who might endeavor to explore their own creativity. In a way, I can see the wisdom in his advice to "be grateful" that no one knows you as you try to create art. You're not hindered by anyone's expectations of what you are doing. The only thing that will stop you from doing the thing is you. If you create something good that earns you some notice of others, those conditions probably can never be replicated, the freedom you had when you were still obscure and trying to make something of yourself. Rilke seems to be saying that an artist should enjoy their obscurity while they have it, and make the most of it. Like youth or innocence, once you lose it, it's gone forever.

Once again, insightful and meaty helpings being served up by Duke Altum.....pass the gravy.......