“Just think: is childhood not difficult in all of its unexplained contexts? Are the years of girlhood not difficult- don’t they pull the head like so much long and heavy hair into the depth of great sadness? And nothing is supposed to change; if life then suddenly becomes more bearable, more carefree, and more joyful for many, this is only the case because they have stopped taking it seriously and actually bearing it and feeling it and filling it with their most authentic selves. This is not progress as life intends it. This is a renunciation of all of its expanses and opportunities. What is asked of us is that we love what is difficult and learn to handle what is difficult and heavy. In difficulty there are the benign forces, the hands that work on us. In the midst of difficulty we are meant to experience our joy, our happiness, our dreams: there, against the depth of this background, they become visible and only there we may recognise their beauty. And only in the darkness of difficulty our precious smile attains its meaning: only there it shines with its deep and dreamy light, and in the brightness that it spreads momentarily we behold the wonders and treasures all around us.”
– rilke, translated by ulrich baer
auden called rilke the ‘santa claus of loneliness’. i laughed at first but then now after reading excerpts from rilke’s letters there really is something behind the sardonicism. i like rilke best for the tentativeness of his advice, when he acknowledges that what he has to say is tempered by the narrowness of his own perspective: i lost patience when he started advocating seemingly umitigated loneliness, as a way of life and as a means of self-knowledge. even if he lived four years speaking only to his housekeeper and writing letters, increasingly eclipsed by his pain. are people innately social animals or not?
“the force of rilke’s letters results from his awareness that his life and ‘world’, in a profound sense, surpassed and exceeded him. This is what constitutes life’s richness for us all; it’s also what can make it difficult. The reason the world ‘surpasses us’ is because we make choices and form intentions that are wiped out simply by what happens; we take recourse to names and titles and seek happiness, but all of those forms of refuge may prove transient. Our ways of compartmentalising the world and our failing to see with equanimity each of its aspects without preference, judgment, or distraction, Rilke writes… ‘puts us in the wrong, makes us culpable, kills us’. And yet this fear of a gradual death brought about by our failure to be mindful- really a death of the imagination- reminds us that it is in fact not a question of mastering or subduing life but of living it.”