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A fragile house

Simon Parke

A favourite at weddings, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke believed true love was less about merging than protecting one another's solitude. Simon Parke salutes a complex and wounded man whose hallmark was passionate authenticity.

There's nothing quite so dull as someone waxing lyrical about the glory of love. It can have an abstract, 'if only' feel to it - or worse a sense of inauthenticity - the writer's life not quite matching their intoxicated words. And if they can't themselves live what they speak of, then really what's the point? So when I come across a writer who makes love a true story, then I take note. And such a man is Rainer Maria Rilke. (And yes, don't be deceived by the middle name - he is a man, though his mother did struggle with this at first… more on that in a moment.)

Rilke's work as a poet has seeped slowly into our consciousness: well-regarded now, but not much noticed in his day, he relied on patrons until he died. And neither does his life offer great tales of derring-do, but rather, a nomadic and patchy story, riddled with failure, anxiety and a terror - not of divine, but of human, judgement. 'Who has not sat before his own heart's curtain?' he writes. 'It lifts: and the scenery is falling apart.'1 As you'll gather, Rilke doesn't come among us to share his success story.

But there was always love. For Rilke, relationships came and went; health came and went; vitality came and went. But there was something about love - its shape, purpose and existence - that lived and breathed in him, never putting him down, never letting him go. 'The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things,' he said, and in many ways he was forever defeated by love, and defeat is a difficult learning… yet it made him the dark lighthouse he became.


The external shell of his life was nomadic. Born in Prague in 1875, he was the only child in an unhappy marriage. He was dressed as a girl when young, in memory of his dead sister, who died when a week old. There was a change of gear, however - in every way - when aged eleven, this artistic boy was sent to one of the brutal German military academy for five years. His father had always wanted to be a soldier. His parents divorced in his absence, and on his return, there followed a wandering existence, which started with two trips to Russia, where he met Tolstoy. After that, he lived variously in Germany, France - Paris, for ten prolific writing years - Spain, Italy and Switzerland, where he died in 1926 of leukaemia.

Apart from his mother, there were two key female relationships in his life: Lou Andreas-Salome, a married woman with whom he had a brief affair, and then a life-long, if complicated, friendship. She trained in psychoanalysis with Freud and remained his surrogate mother, someone to whom he turned. The other woman was his wife, Clara Westoff, a sculptor, with whom he had a daughter Ruth. They attempted a divorce but there were problems, because he was nominally a Catholic. They remained in contact until his death.

So externally, we see a disjointed life, perhaps even a messy one. One or two who looked to him for help: a young poet conducted a long correspondence with him and Rilke's ten letters in reply - published as Letters to a Young Poet - are some of the best self-help work around. But Rilke was nobody's guru. Rather, he spent his energy trying to become his own - and out of both his joy and lament, his positivity and sadness emerged his understanding of love.

We cannot, however, speak sensibly of Rilke and love without taking account of his mother and his faith. This could probably be said of all of us, but it's certainly true of Rilke.


Rilke's relationship with his mother was difficult, and to what extent he was able to repair the damage is open to question. In one letter, written when he was nineteen, he says his mother had only loved him when she could exhibit him to her friends in a little dress. It's clear she could understand him only as a possession rather than a relationship. And as he grew, and struggled to become his own person, she could neither see nor accept him for who he was.

This was devastating for Rilke. Her blindness to his own sense of being - so painfully achieved - and her 'self-absorption in narcissistic fantasies of a Saviour devoted to her'2, were wrecking balls through Rilke's psyche. In one poem, he describes his existence as a small house built by himself, stone by stone - but demolished by his mother. She goes through the stone wall; she has this power and leaves him a ruin. She does not acknowledge what he's built and become… and he has no defences.

We note the image used here: that of stone, something used to build walls to keep people out, to protect his interior life from her. In many ways, his mother was to define his attitudes towards love, both his genius for it and his struggles with it.


We consider also the nature of his religion. It was not that of the Catholic faith into which Rilke was born - he refused the company of a priest on his death bed. Rather, his was a contemplative faith and an inversion of formal religion. In the words of the critic, Hester Pickman, God, for Rilke, 'is not light but darkness-not a father, but a son, not the creator but the created. He, and not man, is our neighbour… for men are infinitely far from each other. They must seek God, not where one or two are gathered in His name, but alone.' The kingdom of God is within.

This God is not some 'given fact', something finished and complete - and in this regard, traditional religion, in Rilke's words, is 'the art of the uncreative.' Rather, God is as one who is emerging alongside us, who we grow with…not an easy calling. As he writes, 'I am circling around God, around the ancient tower, and I have been circling for a thousand years - and I still don't know if I am a falcon, or a storm or a great song.' We can see why the Christian church has flirted with, but never married, Rainer Maria Rilke. Yet this mystical theology was to merge with on his writing about love.


Rilke does not encourage us to rush for answers in any matter; and certainly not in the matter of love. In Letters to a Young Poet, he writes:

'You are so young, so before all beginning…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves-like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.' A couple who I know had this as their marriage reading last year. It seemed to them a good place to start.

The idea of God emerging becomes the idea of love emerging. Love is a difficult work for anyone, he says; 'the work for which all other work is preparation.' For this reason, young people - who are by nature beginners in everything - cannot yet know love. It will require patience - and solitude: 'Learning time is always a long secluded time,' he says.


And so for Rilke, love is not at first about merging or uniting with another - the stuff of most marriage preparation - for that would be a union of the 'unclarified and the unfinished.' Rather love, in its early days, is an invitation to the individual to ripen, to become something substantial in themselves, for the good and for the sake of another.

So we're allowed to fail, we're allowed to learn ...slowly. Why did we ever imagine we understood all this at the beginning of our journey? We were beginners in everything, including love. So no self-punishment, we learn as we go. And have faith, says Rilke, that you are stepping into something that already exists: 'Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.' His contemplative faith places us in an endlessly large circle of love.

The gift of his mother in this story - everything belongs - is Rilke's insistence on the protection of solitude in relationship. He seeks a love that does not invade the house of another. So here is his starting place: 'I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.'


Rilke believes our first task is to look after our own humanity through inner work. 'The only journey is the one within,' he says. We then have something worth offering others. So love becomes an exercise not in smothering affection but in letting go: 'We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.' He is aware that his is a counter-intuitive teaching of love.

And so we reach the summation of his hopes of marriage; though it could count equally for friendship: 'The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries,' he says. 'On the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility; and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvellous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.' In the words of an Elton John song, 'I want love - just a different kind.'3


In understanding language, we need to know who spoke the words we're hearing, because their life gives MAY 2015 9 their meaning. And so it is with Rilke, who sought solitude for himself because of an invasive parent. Throughout his life, he feared being de-humanised, 'made an outcast', by the unspoken judgement of a stranger. He remained always a fragile house - and this may not be your story. But if we allow the possibility that the deepest truth comes to us through our cracks, through our greatest defeats, might we accept that Rilke emerges from the dark waters of experience with a profound truth in his hand? That love must first of all let go?

Not that Rilke lacked passion. Far from it! And we close this meditation on love with the evidence - his poem,

'Extinguish my eyes.' 'Extinguish my eyes, I'll go on seeing you. Seal my ears, I'll go on hearing you. And without feet I can make my way to you, without a mouth I can swear your name. Break off my arms, I'll take hold of you with my heart as with a hand. Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat. And if you consume my brain with fire, I'll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.'

Simon Parke is CEO of The Mind Clinic; leads retreats and sometimes writes books. He can be found at www.simonparke. com.


1 This and subsequent quotes taken from my notebooks down the years so unfortunately I can't help with page references. However, main sources are: Selected poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Ed. Stephen Mitchell, Vintage Books; Letters to a young poet, M.D.Herter Norton, W.W. Norton and Company; or Selected Poems, Vilain/Ranson/ Sutherland, OUP

2 The Beginnings of Terror: A psychological study of Rainer Maria Rilke's life, David Kleinbard, NYU Press.

3 Lyrics of 'I want love' by Taupin/John