Beginning with pain

Someday, at the end of the nightmare of knowing,
may I emerge singing praise and jubilation to assenting angels.
May I strike my heart’s keys clearly, and may none fail
because of slack, uncertain, or fraying strings.
May the tears that steam down my face
make me more radiant: may my hidden weeping
bloom. How I will cherish you then, you grief-torn nights!
Had I only received you, inconsolable sisters,
on more abject knees, only buried myself with more abandon
in your loosened hair. How we waste our afflictions!
We study them, stare out beyond them into bleak continuance,
hoping to glimpse some end. Whereas they’re really
our wintering foliage, our dark greens of meaning, one
of the seasons of the clandestine year–; not only
a season–: they’re site, settlement, shelter, soil, abode.

Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Tenth Elegy,” translated by Edward Snow

Rilke composed – or as he would’ve said, received – the ten Duino Elegies in two great fits of inspiration separated by ten years of drought. In the case of the Tenth Elegy, I personally feel the lengthy conclusion written in 1922 barely begins to fulfill the promise of the first fifteen lines, which were among the sections completed in 1912. So I prefer to think of Duino Elegies as an incomplete and imperfect work – and like it better that way. (For those who know German, the original may be read here.)

May I emerge . . . May I strike my heart’s keys . . . How we waste our afflictions!

The shaman’s self-conjuration is the original resurrection, following his initiatory self-sacrifice: in northern Europe, Odin hanging himself from Yggdrasil is one, dim echo. As particularistic ways of knowing are displaced by the great monocultures we call religions, this pattern, like so many others, loses its connection to lived experience, gets turned into myth. The pretended universalism of religions, with their exclusivity clauses, ends up obscuring the true universality of human experience. To some extent, of course, the primordial patterns are retained as esoteric, would-be “inner traditions”; in that sense, the world religions can resemble Trojan horses. Our excessive fondness for the myth of progress leads most modern students of religion to assume the existence of an upward trajectory, from “primitive” to more advanced. But in fact, a dispassionate look at the anthropological evidence shows that spiritual practices grow less and less complex the more stratified and oppressive – i.e. “civilized” – societies become.

The earliest artworks we know about – 25,000-year-old cave paintings from the south of France – are already highly sophisticated and beautiful creations. They may be viewed, in a sense, as heartworks, figures emerging from and returning to the earth’s own, dark viscera. To this day, through art, music, dance, poetry, I believe we do retain the ability to connect with more primordial ways of knowing, though in the absence of vital traditions the results may turn out to be, well, primitive. For example, I’m not sure to what extent, if at all, our modern, autonomous and unitary selfhood may resemble the roomier, more populous pysche of the pre-modern human being. But I give artists like Rilke and his great teacher Rodin a great deal of credit for rediscovering at least a few pieces of the puzzle on their own.

What about the rest of us? We can, of course, put the received text on a pedestal, turn it into an idol, whelp another religion. We can choose a number of such signposts to direct all our energies toward some fancied goal, such as awe or salvation or direct seeing – getting on the wrong bus just to grab a seat, as my friend the Sylph likes to say.

Or we can leave the poem alone, as Rilke himself advised: Snow says that he “distrusted commentaries as dilutions and foreclosures of the individual’s reading experience. When a friend wrote to him that she felt the key to one of the Sonnets to Orpheus lay in the idea of the transmigration of souls, he responded: ‘You are thinking too far beyond the poem itself . . . I believe that no poem in the Sonnets to Orpheus means anything that is not fully written out there, often, it is true, with its own secret name. All “allusion” I am convinced would be contradictory to the indescribable “being-there” of the poem.'”

Better yet, we can find the courage – or chutzpah – to write our own endings to the Tenth Elegy. Edward Snow’s apprenticeship to these poems suggests the level of insight and humility that must be brought to bear. Think how many other translators – most of them highly accomplished poets in their own right – have fallen short where he succeeded. This would be a nearly impossible task – and therefore, perhaps, the worthy goal of a true spiritual vocation.

Beyond that, it seems to me that seeing the world as a heartwork in whose creation we all participate is the first step. I do not know what the last step – or even the next – may be. But I do strongly suspect that nothing more or less than healing may lie at the center of this “journey of a thousand li,” this so-called Imitation of Christ, this self-mockery, this whatever-you-will.

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