The Rainer Maria Rilke Archive

Poetry, Quotations, & Writings

Letter Eight

Borgeby Gård, Flãdie, Sweden, 12th August, 1904.

I should like to talk to you again for a little while, though I can say hardly anything that will be helpful and but little that will be useful. You have had many great sorrows, which have passed. And you say that this their passing, too, was difficult and discordant for you. But I beg you to consider whether these griefs have not rather gone right through you? Whether there has not been much change within you; whether, while you were sad, you did not alter in some point or other of your being? Only those sorrows are dangerous and bad which one carries with one to the company of other men in order to drown them. Like illnesses, which are superficially and badly treated, they only retreat into the background and break out again after a short interval worse than ever. They collect in one’s innermost being and are life, unlived, rejected, lost life of which one can die. If it were possible for us to see a little further than our knowledge can reach, to see out a little farther over the outworks of our surmising, we should perhaps bear our griefs with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new, something unknown enters into us. Our feelings are dumb with embarrassed shyness and everything in us retreats into the background. A stillness grows up, and the new thing, that nobody knows, stands in the middle of it and is silent.

I believe that nearly all our griefs are moments of suspense, which we experience as paralysis, because we can no longer hear our estranged feelings living. Because we are alone with that foreign thing, which has entered into us; because everything in which we have confidence and to which we are accustomed is for a moment taken away from us; because we are in the midst of a state of transition, in which we cannot remain. The grief, too, passes. The new thing in us, that which has been added to us, has entered into our heart and penetrated to its innermost chamber, and is no longer there even

—it is already in our blood. We do not experience what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing had happened, and yet we have changed just as a house changes into which a guest has entered. We cannot say who has come and perhaps we shall never know, but there are many signs to assure us that the future enters into us in this way, so as to transform itself in us long before it happens. And this is why it is so important to be alone and attentive, when one is sad; because the apparently eventless and motionless moment, when our future enters into us, is so much nearer to life than that other manifestly chance point of time, when it actually happens to us as if from without. The quieter, the more patient, the more open we are in our grief, the deeper and the more unerringly does the new thing enter into us, the better do we make it our own, and the more does it become our fate; and when some day it happens [that is to say, when it passes out of us to others], we will feel ourselves in our innermost being related and near to it. And that is necessary. It is necessary—and this is the direction that our development gradually takes—that nothing strange to us should fall to our lot, but only that which has been in us for a long time. Men have already had to change their conceptions of many processes, and they will gradually come to realise that what we call fate comes out of human beings themselves and does not come upon them from without. It is only because so many did not absorb their fate while it lived in them, and did not make it into part of themselves, that they did not recognise what was coming out of them. It was so strange to them, that in their confused terror, they thought it must just that moment have come upon them, for they could take their oath that they have never found anything similar to it in themselves. Even as men long deceived themselves over the movement of the sun, so are they still deceiving themselves over the movement of what is to come. The future stands fast, Herr Kappus, but we are moving in infinite space. How should we not find it difficult?

And if we speak once more of loneliness, it becomes even clearer that that is not a thing which one can choose or reject. We are lonely. One can deceive oneself over it and behave as if it were not so. That is all. But how much better it is to realise that we are lonely and candidly to make that realisation our starting point. It is, of course, certain to make us giddy; for all the points upon which our eyes used to rest are taken away from us, there is no longer anything near to us, and that which is distant is infinitely distant. A man who had been transported from his room, with hardly any preparation or transition, to the peak of a great mountain, would be bound to have a similar feeling, a feeling of insecurity without parallel, a feeling of abandonment to nameless powers would almost annihilate him. He would imagine that he was falling or would believe that he had been hurled out into space or that he had burst asunder into a thousand fragments. What monstrous lies his brain would have to invent in order to come up with the situation of his senses and explain it! In like manner do all distances and all measures alter for him who becomes lonely. Of these changes many may happen suddenly, and then as with the man on the mountain-top, there arise strange fancies and unusual feelings, which seem to become greater than he can bear. But it is necessary for us to experience that, too. We must accept existence as far as ever it is possible. Everything, even the most unheard of things, must be possible in it. That is in fact the only kind of courage that is demanded of us—to be courageous in face of the strangest, the most astounding and the most inexplicable thing that can confront us. The fact that mankind has been cowardly in this sense has done infinite harm to life, for the experiences which men call “phenomena,” the so-called “world of spirits,” death—all these things that are so closely related to us, have been so thoroughly crowded out of life by man’s daily self-defence, that the senses with which we could grasp them have become stunted. Let us not speak of God. But the anxiety men feel before the inexplicable has not only impoverished the existence of the individual. Through it the relations of human being to human being have been limited, lifted as it were from a river-bed of infinite possibilities on to a fallow bank, to which nothing happens. For it is not only laziness that brings it about that human relationships repeat themselves from one occasion to the next with such unspeakable monotony and staleness, but it is also shyness of any new experience whose end cannot be foreseen, to which men do not think they are equal. But only he who is prepared for everything and does not exclude anything, even the most enigmatical, will live his relationships with another as something really living and with himself get right to the bottom of his own existence. For, if we think of this existence of the individual as a room—be it large or small—it is evident that most people only get to know a corner of their room, a corner by the window, a strip on which they walk up or down. In this way they have a certain security: yet far more human is that perilous insecurity which drives the prisoners in Poe’s stories to take hold of the shapes of their fearful prison and not to be strangers unfamiliar with the unspeakable horrors of their sojourn there. But we are not prisoners, no traps or snares are set around us and there is nothing that should frighten us or torment us. We have been sent into life as being the element to which we most nearly correspond, and, moreover, through thousands of years of adaptation to this life, we have become so like it that, when we stay still, through a happy mimicry we are hardly distinguishable from everything that surrounds us. We have no reason to be mistrustful towards our world, for it is not against us. If it has horrors, they are our horrors, if it has precipices, those precipices are ours, and, if there are dangers there, we must try to love them. And if we adjust our life to the principle which advises us that we must always attach ourselves to what is difficult, then that which now still appears to us most strange, will become our most familiar and loyal friend. How can we forget that old myth, which is to be found at the beginning of all peoples—the myth of the dragon, which at the last moment changes into a princess? Perhaps all the dragons of your life are princesses, who are only waiting for us to show a little beauty and courage. Perhaps at very bottom every horror is something helpless, that wants help from us.

And so, my dear Herr Kappus, you must not be horrified, if a grief rises up before you greater than any you have seen before. If over your hands and all your doings there passes an uneasiness, like light and cloud-shadows, you must bethink yourself, that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it is holding you in its hands, and will not let you fall. Why do you want to exclude any disturbance, any woe or sadness from your life, seeing that you do not know what work their presence is performing in yourself? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question, whence has come all that and whither is it going? Seeing that you know that you are in a state of transition and there is nothing you could desire more than to transform yourself. If something in your present life is sickly, remember that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself of foreign elements. Then one must just help it to be sick, to have its sickness in its entirety and to let it come right out, for that is its means of progress. So much is happening in you now, dear Herr Kappus, that you must be patient like a sick man and confident like a convalescent, for perhaps you are both these two. And you are still more, you are also the doctor, who must watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait, and that is above all what you must do now, in so far as you are your own doctor.

Do not watch yourself too closely, do not be too quick to draw conclusions from that which is happening to you. Simply let it happen, otherwise you will come too easily to look, reproachfully

—that is to say, from a moral point of view—upon your past, which naturally takes part in everything that is happening to you now. But what you remember and condemn is not that part of the confusions, desires, and yearnings of your boyhood which is effective within you. The extraordinary circumstances of a lonely and helpless childhood are so difficult and complicated, exposed to so many influences and at the same time so cut off from any really coherent scheme of life, that, when a vice enters into it, one cannot simply speak of it as vice. One must always be so careful with names; it is often by the name of a crime that a life is shattered and not by the nameless and personal action itself, which was. probably a perfectly definite necessity of that life and could without difficulty be accepted by it as such. The consumption of strength only seems to you to be so great, because you over-estimate the victory; it is not the victory that is the “great thing” you think you have performed, although you are right in your feeling. The great thing is this, that there was already something there which you could put in the place of that deception, something true and real. Without that your victory would only have been a moral reaction without any further meanings: as it is it has become an epoch in your life—your life, dear Herr Kappus, of which I think with so many good wishes. Do you remember how this life of yours yearned to pass out of childhood, and come to the state of “a big man”? I can see that it is now longing to leave the “big man” for the “bigger man.” Therefore it does not cease to be difficult, but for that very reason it will also not cease to grow.

And if I am to say one thing more to you, it is this: do not believe that he who is trying to console you lives without troubles among the simple and quiet words which often do you good. His life is full of troubles and griefs and is not to be compared with yours. Were it not so, he could never have been able to find those words.

Yours,

RAINER MARIA RILKE.

Translated by K.W Maurer

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