|And we, spectators always, everywhere,|
turned towards everything,
and never towards the open.
It fills us. We arrange it. It decays.
We arrange it again, and decay ourselves.
|Und wir: Zuschauer, immer, überall,|
dem allen zugewandt und nie hinaus!
Uns überfüllts. Wir ordnens. Es zerfällt.
Wir ordnens wieder und zerfallen selbst.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote these lines in 1922; they are a part of the eighth Duino Elegy. It describes us humans as spectators. We are turned towards life, hungry for experience and excitement, but we don’t want to look at ourselves, and we resist change, even though the experience of life is overwhelming. We organize our reality into systems of knowledge and practices, but all attempts to create order ultimately fail. In the end, the subject itself disintegrates.
This fragmentation of the human being is rooted in the fantasy of being able to impose order on the natural world, and in a delusion of understanding. We act as if the world were known to us, and obeys us, but we understand very little about the reality we inhabit. The more we learn, the less we know, because every answer opens more and more questions.
Rilke’s four lines contain an implicit critique of civilization. He also raises some fundamental questions – what is the human subject, and why is it so de-centered in the world? What is the relationship between experience and identity? Can the human subject really disintegrate so easily?
In 2011, I have written an essay that examines these questions in Rilke’s late poetry, and I finally managed to put it online. It was also published in a literary journal, Página Aberta. It is too long to reprint it on this website, but I have made it available on Amazon as an electronic text. Rilke is a philosophical poet who anticipates the changes in our relationship to nature; he is an ecological thinker who re-discovers that nature consists of subjects, many of them non-human. My essay attempts to translate Rilke’s poems into a more philosophical language, while staying close to the poetic language. The guiding questions for the inquiry are:
- What is nature from the point of view of human experience?
- What does Rilke tell us about the relationship to our own human nature?
- If religion and rationality fail to give us the answers we seek, can we find a poetic answer to the experience of dying?
- What is the relation between mysticism and poetry?
- Is there a mystical experience that does not extinguish the subject?
In his late poetry, Rilke increasingly moves into a mysticism of nature. Through the act of writing poetry he discovers that a transformation of subjectivity is possible. In his own existential journey he finds that the act of writing, his experience of himself, and the experience of nature, become increasingly connected. This allows him to overcome a deep existential anxiety and accept his own mortality without despair.
Rilke’s late poems demonstrate that there is a place where the human subject can find itself beyond the nature-culture antagonism, and beyond language itself. In order to get there, we have to learn how to listen deeply to the voice of nature inside us.