15 March 2005

Gass decanting Rilke's entire life

More from Reading Rilke: Reflections on Translation by Willam H. Gass:

"If, from earliest youth, your inmost self had cried out to escape its circumstances; if you’d looked about and wondered why your presence had been needed even for a moment where you were; and if that meant you had to disappear into an inner distance, leaving your face and figure to fend for themselves, seeking a realm where you could claim an absolute autonomy; if, somewhat to your shame, considering your abject and unaccomplished condition, you had immortal longings in you; if you knew without being told, without having seen any evidence, without therefore knowing, that you were unique, that inside your small delicate body, behind your heavy-lidded eyes, a wide world was contained, and every house there was haunted by dreams, dreams of greatness, ambitions that Ewald Tracy, your namesake, gave away in a petulant moment—“I am my own lawmaker and king,” he’d said, “nobody is above me, not even God”—and furthermore, if, to write the great poetry you meant to write, you had first to be a great poet (for where would this sublime stuff come from if not from a sublime soul?), then the fatal division of the self is set; then that hidden ruler must remake both actor and role and push them onto the stage. So his childhood name is eventually altered; so is his handwriting, at Lou Salome’s suggestion, though that is accomplished through the persistent efforts of his will; consequently he must change his nature, change his life; change . . . change . . . with the worry that (in unhappy harmony with his mother’s practice) a fine label would not improve the cheap wine that had been decanted down the bottle’s slender throat to create a successful deception. Henceforward the poet will be nothing but a Poet, and wander if he must, free to find his inspiration, free to wait for the Muses’ touch, despite life’s temptations, despite the need for the crowd’s applause, because he’ll be Orpheus, singing though he seems only a head now, floating downriver in the furious flux of things, for really he’ll be whole, head and heart will be at last one. Yet in all this there is the possibility that he’ll fail in the role he has assigned himself: which is? that the perfect self (an Angel) must play the part of a perfect appearance (the puppet); in other words, in the first place, that the poetry won’t come, and he’ll be an ape or a mimic, or, in the second place, that the audience will not be there to applaud, wll see the puppet is a puppet, and that, in the third place, the puppet, full of resentment at having lost a normal life for nothing, will turn upon this inside Angel and pull upon his strings, the strings once, solely in his hands, and haul him down from on high (since he’s not as on-high as all that, not as perfect as the imagined Angels of the Elegies); whereupon the whole show will be over. Doctor Serafico will have failed to heal himself—and there will be no Angel, no poetry, and no poet."

If I didn't say it before, this is a thrilling book that every poet (writer, artist, human) should read.

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