More Rilke on Death

I have just finished reading The Dark Interval: Letters for the Grieving Heart, by Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated and edited by Ulrich Baer (London: Bloomsbury, 2018). I am still sitting with these passages, because their themes ring true with my own experience of death, grief, and loss. Emphasis added by me. — Love One Person

Dear Madame:

After receiving your letter I was very happy that Monsieur Contat had allowed me to write to you and send the book [Duino Elegies] which had been destined for you, because of what you say about your life: that its most painful event was also the greatest. This is, basically, the secret thesis of these pages, and it is perhaps even the innate belief that brought them into existence—this conviction that what is greatest about our existence and renders it precious and ineffable also makes very careful use of our painful experiences to enter into our soul. It is true that sometimes also happiness may serve as a pretext to initiate us into that which, by its very nature, surpasses us. But in such cases it is much easier to understand right away that it wants only the best for us, although it is surely no less difficult to make use of this good we receive in the midst of happiness than it is to acknowledge that there is something positive at the bottom of the absences inflicted on us by pain. Every day when looking at these beautiful white roses, I ask myself whether they are not the most perfect image of this unity, and (I would even say) this identity of absence and presence that perhaps forms the fundamental equation of our life? The writings of Malte L. Brigge represent only a first step or two in that direction. One would have to go there much more forcefully and, above all, one would have to make it one’s mission to destroy those ancient and inherited doubts that separate us from the best part of our own strengths. We distrust those strengths to the point that we let them become Strange to us, because they offer or impose on us, depending on the circumstances, other ways of permanence than those we believe to be compatible with our personality. It is a blessed moment of inner life when one decides or resolves from now on to love with all one’s strength and unflinchingly that which one fears the most, that which has made us—according to our own measure—suffer too much. Don’t you believe that once such a decision has been made, the word “separation” is nothing but a name stripped of all meaning, unless it were the wonderful anonymity of an infinite number of discoveries, unheard-of harmonies, and unimaginable encounters …

I thank you, dear Madame, for this beautiful, silent photograph. It keeps the fragile memory in balance when one places enough white roses on the other side. — Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Marguerite Masson. January 4, 1923.


“Woe to those who have been consoled” comes close to what the courageous Marie Lenéru wrote in her remarkable and strange “Journal,” and here indeed consolation would be one of many distractions, a diversion, and thus at bottom something frivolous and unproductive. Time itself does not “console,’ as people say superficially; at best it assigns things to their proper place and creates an order. And even this works only because later we pay so little mind and hardly give any consideration to that order to which time so quietly contributes, that instead of admiring everything that now softened and reconciled comes to rest in the great Whole, we treat it as the forgetfulness and weakness of our heart just because our pain is no longer as acute. Alas, how little the heart forgets–and how strong it would be if we did not stop it from completing its tasks before they have been fully and truly accomplished!–Not wanting to be consoled for such a loss: That should be our instinct. Instead we should make it our deep and searing curiosity to explore such loss completely and to experience the particular and singular nature of this loss and its impact within our life. Indeed, we ought to muster the noble greed to enrich our inner world precisely with this loss and its significance and weight…. The more deeply we are impacted by such loss and the more violently it shakes us, the more it is our task to reclaim as our possession in new, different, and definitive ways that which, by virtue of being lost, is now so hopelessly emphasized. This would then amount to the infinite achievement of overcoming on the spot all the negative, sluggish, and indulgent dimensions that are found in every experience of pain. This is active pain that works on the inside, the only kind that has any meaning and is worthy of us. I do not love the Christian ideas of a Beyond, and I increasingly distance myself from them without, of course, thinking of attacking them. They may have their value and purpose, like so many other hypotheses about the divine periphery. But for me the danger is not only that they render those who have passed away less concrete and at least for the moment less reachable for us. But even we ourselves, in our longing for a beyond away from here, become in that process less concrete and less earthbound, while it is our obligation–as long as we are here and related to tree, flower, and soil–to remain earthbound in the purest sense, and even yet to become so! In my case what had died for me, so to speak, had died into my own heart. When I looked for the person who had passed away, he gathered inside of me in peculiar and such surprising ways, and it was deeply moving to feel that he now existed only there. My enthusiasm for serving, deepening, and honoring his existence there gained the upper hand almost at the same moment when the pain would otherwise have invaded and devastated the entire landscape of my mind. When I remember how often with the most extreme difficulties in understanding and accepting each other–I loved my father! During my childhood, my thoughts often became confused and my heart froze at the mere thought that at some point he might cease to be; my existence seemed to me so entirely determined by him (my existence which from the beginning was aimed in such a different direction!) that to my innermost self his departure was synonymous with my own demise. But death is so deeply rooted in the nature of love (if we only become cognizant of death without being misled by the ugliness and suspicions attached to it) that it nowhere contradicts love. Where to, finally, can death drive a person we have unspeakably borne in our heart but into that very heart, where would the “idea” of this beloved being and his unceasing influence (for how could this influence cease, which, while he was still alive among us, had already become more and more independent of his tangible presence) … where would this always secret influence be more secure than within us?! Where can we got closer to this influence, celebrate it more purely, and submit to it better than when it appears in concert with our own voices as if our heart had learned a new language, a new song, a new strength! I reproach all modern religions for providing their believers with consolations and embellishments of death instead of giving their soul the means to reconcile and communicate with it. With death, with its complete and unmasked cruelty: a cruelty so horrific that it completes the circle by reaching all the way back to an extreme mildness which is as great, pure, and utterly clear (all consolation is murky!) as we never imagined the sweetest spring day to be! But mankind has never even taken a first step to experience this deepest gentleness, which, if even only a few of us truly received it, could perhaps gradually permeate and make transparent all conditions of life. Nothing has been done to experience this most abundant and soothing gentleness–except perhaps during the most ancient and guileless periods of the past whose secrets we have nearly lost. I am certain that the content of all of the “initiations” anyone ever experienced was nothing but a “key” that allowed us to read the word “death” without negating it. Just like the moon, life surely has a side that is permanently turned away from us, and which is not its opposite but its complement to attain perfection, consummation, and the truly complete and round sphere and orb of being.

There should be no fear that we are not strong enough to endure any and even the closest and most horrible experience of death. Death is not beyond our strength, it is the highest mark etched at the vessel’s rim: We are full whenever we reach it, and being full means (for us) a feeling of heaviness, that something is difficult … that is all.–I do not mean to say that one should love death. But one should love life so generously and without calculating and selecting that one automatically always includes it (the half turned away from life) in one’s love, too. This is what actually happens each time in the vast movements of love, which cannot be arrested or contained! Only because we exclude death in a sudden fit of reflection has it become increasingly strange for us and, since we kept it at such a distance, something hostile.

It is conceivable that it is infinitely closer to us than life itself…. What do we know of it?! Our efforts (this has become increasingly clear to me over the years, and my work has perhaps only this one meaning and mission, to bear witness to this realization, which so often unexpectedly overwhelms me ever more impartially and independently … perhaps more visionarily, if that does not sound too proud) …our efforts, I believe, can aim only at assuming the unity of life and death so that it may gradually prove itself to us. Since we are so prejudiced against death we do not succeed in releasing it from its disfigurations… I urge you to believe, my dear Countess, that death is a friend, our most profound and perhaps the only friend who is never, ever misled by our actions and vacillations… And I do not mean this, of course, in that sentimental, romantic sense of renouncing or opposing life, but it is our friend especially then when we most passionately and profoundly consent to being here, to change, to nature and to love. Life always says at once: Yes and No. Death (I implore you to believe it!) is the true yes-sayer. It says only: Yes. Before eternity.

Just think of the “Sleeping Tree.” How good that I just thought of it. Think of all of the small pictures and their inscriptions–bow, in your youthful innocent faith, you always recognized and affirmed both in the world: the sleeping and the waking, the bright and the dark, the voice and the silence … la présence et l’absence. All the presumed opposites which converge somewhere in one point where they sing the hymn of their union—and this place is, for the time being, our heart! — Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Countess Margot Suzi-Noris-Crouy. January 6, 1923.


Now it is necessary, in an unspeakably and inexhaustibly magnanimous gesture of pain, to include death in life, all of death, since through someone precious to you it has moved within your reach (and you have become related to it). Make it part of life as something no longer to be rejected, no longer denied. Pull it toward you with all your strength, this horrific thing, and as long as you cannot do that, pretend that you are comfortable and familiar with it. Don’t scare it off by being scared of it (like everyone else). Interact with it or, if that is still too much of an effort for you, at least hold still so that it can get very close, that always chased-off creature of death, and let it cuddle up to you. For this, you see, is what death has become for us: something always chased away that no longer had a chance of revealing itself to us. If at the moment when it hurts and devastates us, death were treated by even the simplest person with some familiarity (and not with horror), what confessions would it share when it–finally–passed over to him! Only a small moment of open-mindedness toward it, a brief suppression of prejudice, and it is ready to share infinite intimacies that would overwhelm our tendency to endure it with trembling hesitation. Patience, Liliane, nothing but: patience.

Once you have been granted access to the Whole and thus been initiated, you solemnly celebrate your own true independence. You become more protective and more capable of granting protection exactly to the extent that you have lost and now lack protection. The solitude into which you were cast so violently makes you capable of balancing out the loneliness of others to exactly the same degree. And as your own sense of difficulty is concerned, you will soon realize that it has posited a new measure for your existence and a new standard for your suffering and endurance. — Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Claire Goll. October 22, 1923.


Yes, for it is our task to imprint this provisional, perishable earth so deeply, so painfully and passionately in ourselves that its reality shall arise in us again “invisibly.” We are the bees of the Universe. Nous butinons éperdument le miel du visible, pour l’accumuler dans la grande ruche d’or de l’Invisible. [We wildly gather the honey of the visible, in order to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible.] The Elegies show us, by way of this effort of the continual transformations of the beloved visible and tangible into the invisible vibration and excitation of our own nature, that new frequencies of vibration are introduced into the vibrating spheres of the universe. (Since the different elements in the cosmos are only different exponents of vibration, we prepare, in this way, not only intensities of a mental kind but, who knows, new bodies, metals, nebulae, and constellations.) And this activity is curiously supported and urged on by the ever more rapid vanishing of so many visible things that will no longer be replaced. Even for our grandparents a “house,” a “well,” a familiar tower, their very clothes, and even their coat were infinitely more, infinitely more intimate, and almost any object was for them a vessel in which they encountered the human and added to the store of the human. Now, from America, empty indifferent things are pouring across, make-believe things, mock-ups of life … A house, in the American sense, an American apple, or a grapevine over there has nothing in common with the house, the fruit, the grape into which had entered the hopes and thoughtfulness of our forefathersThe things that are animated and share in our knowledge because they were truly experienced, are running out and can no longer be replaced. We are perhaps the last ones who will still have known such things. On us rests the responsibility not only of preserving their memory (that would be little and unreliable), but their human and lares-like worth. (“Lares” in the sense of the guardian deities of the home.) The earth has no other way out than to become invisible: only in us who with a part of our nature partake of the invisible and who have (at least) some stock in it, and who can increase our holdings in the invisible during our sojourn here. In us alone can this intimate and lasting transformation be consummated that turns the visible into something invisible which no longer depends on seeing or touching it, just as our own destiny grows at once more present and invisible in us. — Rainer Maria Rilke, letter to Witold Hulewicz. November 13, 1925.


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