The Greatest Literary Works

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Rainer Maria Rilke

Written by son of rambow on Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sixteen of twenty numbered sections from a piece composed by Rilke in 1898, when he was twenty-two, and never published in his lifetime.

You must have seen them: these small towns and tiny villages of my homeland. They have learned one day by heart and they scream it out into the sunlight over and over again like great gray parrots. Near night though they grow preternaturally pensive. You can see it in the town squares, where they struggle to solve the dark question that hangs in the air. It is touching, and a little ludicrous, to the foreigner, because he knows without a second thought that if there is an answer—any answer at all—it certainly won’t come from the small towns and tiny villages of my homeland, try as sincerely as they might, poor things.

When I think about little girls in the moment of turning into big girls (it is no slow timid development, but something strangely sudden), I always have to imagine an ocean behind them, or a grave eternal plain, or something else you don’t actually see with your eyes but can only sense, and that only in the deep and silent hours. Then I see the big girls as being exactly as big as I was used to the little childlike girls being small—and heaven above knows why, that’s just how I want to see them. There is a reason for everything. But the best things that happen, after all, are the ones that hide their deeper reason with both hands, whether out of modesty or because they don’t want to be betrayed.

Even so: in the small towns and tiny villages of my homeland too the little girls turn into big girls overnight. I cannot prevent it, and I cannot pour out an ocean behind their backs after the fact, because that would mean that their younger brothers, who still eat their ten-o’clock bread and butter at school, would need to tell everyone when they got home: “The geography book is wrong. And our teacher lied. He told us the ocean starts way down at the bottom edge of the map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And now it’s here in the middle of the Kingdom of Bohemia—the ocean.” I know that the little smart alecks smile their superior smiles at such realizations. But their smiles about the ocean I’ve unexpectedly made in the middle of Bohemia are not nearly as bright as the joy with which they imperiously tell themselves, faced with bare floorboards or furrowed fields: That is the ocean. So I’d rather leave creation to them, these little almighties, and content myself with the fact that behind the girls I’m thinking of there really and truly is a plain.

These girls of mine do not find, nor do they seek. They cannot remember ever once having sought. They know only darkly about various discoveries that belong to the time before they grew up. Whatever surprised them back then and nestled into their shy little brown hands, or into their much shyer hearts, they stored up, all these years, be it a curved brooch or a lost word. People love to brood about things: whom the things served, and why. Whenever I made such a discovery, I always felt like an heir coming to power after an unknown king. And out of this experience comes my conviction that these girls are the rightful heiresses of the bygone women who wore beautiful, heavy crowns.

With boys, growing up means coming-of-age. Big girls, though, are much less “of age” than little ones. You kiss the little ones often and openly; you want to kiss the big ones in secret. That is a difference, and surely one of the strangest. The boys grow up into their manhood so sturdily and steadily; all of a sudden it fits them, you don’t know how. The girls let go of their children’s dresses suddenly and stand there, timid and freezing, at the start of a wholly different life, where the words and the coins they are used to are no longer valid currency. They develop regularly and calmly only up to the threshold of their maturity. Then the clocks go haywire. Sometimes a day is like nothing at all and then right on its heels comes a night that is like . . . a thousand days.

Old people from the country talk about how, in the good old days that they call theirs, young girls went to their distaffs in the long afternoons of autumn. In the big hospitable living room where all their friends would gather together, on their very best behavior, they sat contemplatively in a circle, and the early fire, cozily stretched out on the imposing wood in the covered tiled fireplace, often did their talking for them. A smell of fine white linen, homemade raisin cookies (from a secret recipe), and hot crackling pine resin, all mixed together, solicitously diffused around my kindhearted old Aunt Zdeni, would probably be able to bring back to this wonderful ancient woman’s mind some of what she felt forty-five years before in this same suggestive environment. But we have not the means to draw forth this wondrous scent from its censer, and my kindhearted Aunt Zdeni assures me that everything beautiful she brooded about back then must be safe in the threads of the white fabric she keeps stored all year long, untouched, in the dull mahogany wardrobe; since it was not to be found in her own long life, it must have stayed in the tablecloths, she says.

That’s how it always is. People would sooner weave their dreams deep into the linens than let them grow up next to them into a life without enough sun for them to ripen. When you near your end, you leave your dreams behind in small and seemingly worthless, old-fashioned things, which betray no secrets before they perish in turn. And not because they keep quiet, but because they sing their sentimental songs in a language which no one left alive can understand, for which there is no dictionary and no teacher. So even the ivory-inlaid spinning wheel of my virtuous ancestor Josepha Christin von Goldberg does a poor job of helping me understand the girls matured at the distaffs in the small towns and tiny villages of my homeland.

In books there are recorded the fortunes of those who were especially happy or unhappy, especially holy or hateful in their hearts. Then there are episodes from the life of each one: hopes and revelations, secrets and swoonings, ordered according to the alphabet of age and experience. They talk in those books either about girls in the country or girls in the city, or maybe about an only daughter taken out of one setting and placed into the other. They describe either a girl nothing happens to or a girl everything happens to, but they have a special predilection for cases where both take place, one after the other—this is felt to be particularly thrilling and educational and is now customary in novels and with anyone who deals with manufactured stories, events, and destinies.

You cannot hold anything against this calm and tranquil occupation: the story of Zoroaster, that of Plato, that of Jesus Christ and Columbus and Leonardo and Napoleon and many more, did need to get written. In other words, these stories wrote themselves, so to speak. Every one of this cast of characters etched a furrow in the great gray brain of the earth, and we all carry a miniature reproduction of this archetypal brain within us, like a pocket watch or the small round pill of a compass that shows where the sun rises over a worthy citizen’s belly. Later the stories of rare women came into existence; but here a little assistance was necessary, and a logic and a mnemotechnic were invented for the geocentric primary brain that even the historians of today are still proud of. In our most recent century, which has almost died away now, people worked more and more on the paysage intime—they wanted to tell the story of the nameless individuals. Someone finally seemed to notice that battles don’t only take place at Thermopylae or Hastings or Austerlitz, sometimes the battlefield is called Fear or Desire or Ingratitude; that not every discovery is of America; that not every invention has to arrive at gunpowder or the steam engine or the airship in order to be meaningful and, in a certain sense, fruitful. And so it has become the norm to present not true, authenticated heroes, but plausible, authentic-seeming heroes. To this end they have spent the last few decades ripping apart the heroes of the past and the usable contemporaries and putting together new, ever new possibilities from the unrecognizable pieces. These possibilities are supposed to come across as interesting or singular human beings, at least when you look at them in the right light, from a certain angle. And people keep making these attempts, incessantly, keep manufacturing modern legitimacies that make the old measures seem moderate; they’re very happy when one of these specimens, after they attach its head not to its torso but to its right toe, clings to life for a while. That’s how people become clever. In other words, they lay in a collection of more or less serious experiences and then have to rent an extra room to hold all the fruits of their vigorous, diligent research. When you look at it this way, of course, the rare types and unexpected nuances count most heavily. And it may indeed be that mature human beings, standing in sharp contrast to their surroundings, do experience strange things, and in the strangest way too. It is said that their “fate” is of the greatest interest, and two things are meant by this word: that which strikes them from without, and their actions and reactions when faced with these blows and impressions.

If I were to put together one figure from my many girls and from fragments of Joan of Arc, Charlotte Corday, and Anna Katharina Emmerich—just to touch on one possible combination—then I too could sing the praises of a heroine who would be happily and hospitably welcomed into the houses of the small towns if she were willing to stoop so low. But I see my girls getting scared. They are afraid I will haul them across all the abysses to each other, and will want this from one and that from another and everything from none of them; they are scared of being left behind as half-requited lovers with half of what they possess in their disappointed hands, like white roses a storm has moved through with its broad, merciless, terrifying shoulders.

And then I see, in their faces and figures, hundreds and hundreds of apprehensions. Clear and dark, dreaming and waking, renouncing and desiring fears press in on me or flee in fright from my glance to somewhere undefined. Then I know that I mustn’t cram ten or twenty girls together into one heroine. Instead I need to take one, think about her, and spread her out across the thousand sisters who are always with her. Only when I speak of a thousand girls will I seem to know something private and tender about one; only when their countless voices unite will even the saddest one and the one farthest away feel a breath of that high song that has no equal.

Fra Angelico, in his great frescoes of severe solitary figures, expressed the aspiration to heaven simply and beautifully in every one. But on the many, many God-breathing faces of the angels in the Last Judgment, heaven itself has its place with all its serenity and sovereignty and song. These faces are the many-colored mosaic of heaven’s power, and there is no other picture of heaven that could be as great and rich and gripping.

There have been many women. Tired like blonde Maria, bad like Perchta von Rosenberg who softly paces through the castles of Bohemia with death behind her, good like Elisabeth of Hungary, the lovely landgravine of Thuringia, whose trepidation called forth roses from her bread. And then the many mothers. But were there girls before my girls? You cannot find the traces of feet like theirs on any path. In vain would you seek the faintest footprint in all the sand in the world. It is like the mark on the cheek of a child who has slept on his little hand. Tiny hollows are left on the path, like those left under the weight of a caress—behind the girls; in front of them all is smooth and empty. So maybe they are the first, or did those before them always walk across the fields, or across dark, fragrant mosses, or on water across the sea?

Someone insists: There are no footprints to be found on a sidewalk’s pavement either. To that I reply: There are not many paved sidewalks in these small towns yet. Certainly the street itself, where the vehicles go, is almost everywhere still a river of dust, from which you escape to the firmer roadsides. But my girls stride straight down the middle of the street, wherever they can feel the most sky above them, and they walk through the whole town on little white clouds. With no whence behind them, so without any whither. Just walking. Maybe so that they won’t hear the tides of their blood surge so loud. Walking in the tentative rhythm of this secret inner beat of the surf. They are the silent shore of their restless infinity. They never find the same pace. They bump into each other as though blown by a host of inimical winds. Wave in different directions. Turn the corner, hesitating, when the wind tears words from their lips which they didn’t yet intend. Come back the same way, and wander back and forth again and again between two streets. Like someone waiting. Always finish their roaming around within fifteen minutes. Instead of venturing out into time like a white procession with a fiery foreign flag.

Go walk behind them. Your gaze will involuntarily lower; their bright clothes are blinding. Your eye will fall, with wings half singed off, onto the road, which lies spread out and wide like an open book. In its pages, bygone carriages have laid down their lines. And that is good. For the steps of the girls can’t write straight. Many lines of writings run alongside the furrows. Up and down. As if someone had written them at night, or like the letters of the blind. Still, with a little effort and practice, you can tell that these are nothing less than long poems, improvisations, through which, waxing and waning, runs a strange rhythm. The same rhyme-words return again and again. As if pleading. You find the same ones waiting at every door. They are moving, simple words; lutes with only a single string. A silver string, you think—and its note can bring you all the way into a dream.

When these girls of mine wander and roam, their souls slowly sway like rowboats tied to an unsteady shore. —For their souls are gondolas of gold, laden with impatience. They are completely draped with old, soft, silken fabrics, so that dusk is eternally falling within them. The girls love this sweet-smelling darkness with its lovely inexhausted possibilities. They live in it. On rare occasions, when the folds of the curtain stir, the light scratches them. And then for a moment they stare, astonished, at a corner of the room or a garden where it is just evening. They are quietly terrified that room and garden and evening exist, and they lift the fear of these many things into the silken darkness of their lives and fold their hands over it. Thus are their prayers.

—Translated from German by Damion Searls

source: The Paris Review

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