19 September 2009

On Beauty and Rainer Maria Rilke’s First Duino Elegy

On Beauty and Rainer Maria Rilke’s First Duino Elegy

The other day I was teaching my students Rilke’s First Elegy. (I’d teach all Rilke’s Elegies, but it’s a survey class, so we’re speeding by). I was talking to them first about longing, which is a theme they easily pick out on their own. I ask them what we long for, and they answer: Enlightenment, Eternal Life, Salvation, & Love. Then I try to link this line of discussion into the idea of what is invisible in the visible, with, for example, Beauty. What do we see when we see Beauty?

For Beauty’s nothing

but the beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,

and why we adore it so is because it serenely

disdains to destroy us.

(Leishman’s Translation)

How and why does Beauty destroy us? What does Beauty seem to be “about”? What is beneath Beauty? Is it Truth, as Keats said, and if so what does he mean? And what does it illicit in you? For Rilke, Beauty elicits “terror”. Though we typically think that Beauty will elicit love.

At this point a student answered. I tend to feel a kind of love for all my students unconditionally, but I also tend to process them only within the context of the classroom. In the classroom, we’re on a mission -- to enter the text, to imagine that if Rilke were sitting in the corner, he would be nodding, yes.

So after the question, “What does Beauty remind you of? What does it make you think of?” I was surprised to hear a whisper, “That I’m ugly.”

The student responsible for the comment is a sweet, quiet man, that I suddenly notice is not conventionally attractive. I pause for just a second, and then say, “Exactly. For all of us. Beauty reminds us of our inadequacies, of our mortality, of our limits. Beauty tells us of our short-comings, but also of what is possible.”

All, perhaps, true. And then, because he just proved that Beauty is not only about positive pleasures, I launched into a brief discussion of the Sublime. The Sublime “up to the lintel”, is specifically about terror, about a kind of confusion or collision of reason and aesthetics.

For Kant, Beauty takes us away from the here and now and thus transports us.

For (Edmund) Burke, Beauty inspires love, and the Sublime inspires terror.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Sublime was a feeling of agitation, a contradictory feeling of pleasure and pain. Since “the Fate of Beauty is always its end,” that is how Beauty reminds us of our mortality.

On my drive home, I started thinking about my own experiences of Beauty and how they actually worked in my life. Yes, looking at a Vogue Magazine can make me feel inadequate. But I seldom really even think of those women as beautiful, as much as just “perfect.” What I find beautiful is the crow riding a thermal off the mountain, the cottonwood leaves shimmering in the wind, bare tree branches against a streetlight, the happiness of my wiggling, circling dog when I enter the house, the light in my children’s eyes. I was awestruck once, by a small hawk gliding down the street at dusk. Never does that beauty make me feel inadequate, or mortal, in fact just the opposite, it makes me feel connected in to the greater possibilities of life, tapped into what I might call “the mystic” where you and the object of beauty are sharing the same wavelength, on the same electric path, “auras fused” as Emerson would say. Perhaps Beauty, real Beauty, is actually the opposite of feeling inadequate, it’s feeling full and accepted and part of the ever-present life refulgent around you.

For Lyotard, the Sublime is “kindled by the threat of nothing further happening.” The painter Barnett Barush Newman wrote an essay called, The Sublime is Now, near the same time he called one of his paintings, Now, and it is this idea that Lyotard pushes off from to discuss the Sublime, related to the Now, which is possibly “the site, the place { } given to the Unnamable.”

Is it not time that, in loving,

we freed ourselves from the loved one, and quivering, endured:

as the arrow endures the string, to become, in the gathering out-leap,

something more than itself? For staying is nowhere.

(Leishman’s Translation)

Love, like Beauty, is suppose to take you somewhere. It has the possibility (the promise?) of taking you closer to yourself, closer to God, closer to life, to Spirit, to Mystery. No matter what you are loving. (Earlier in the poem: “Yes, the Springs had need of you. Many a star/was waiting for you to espy it. { ... } All this was a trust./But were you equal to it?/ Were you not always/distracted by expectation, as though all this/were announcing someone to love?”) The lover, takes you, “in the gathering out-leap” beyond who you were, so that you can be at one with yourself, with the world.

The next day I met my 11-year-old son and his friend downtown for a festival. I could live without the crowds, so I sat on the steps in front of a government building, just sitting, waiting for them, relaxing. Soon, from far down the street, they were walking, sharing one skateboard, one of them on the board, then off, up a curb, off. They looked much shorter and smaller than they always sound on the phone, with their authority and conviction, telling me of their plans to explore. I watched them come up the street. When they arrived, they took the skateboard up a ramp I hadn’t even noticed, then spent several minutes on and off the phone with other friends, deciding who was going to do what, all the while off and on the skateboard. On the walk back to the car, we passed a parking lot that sloped into a sidewalk.

“Oh! We have to down that.”

“Or ally it.”

They are suddenly doing fancy things, fancy to me at least, sliding down the ramp, off the curb and into the street, then flipping around, snapping the skateboard up into their hands.

I sat down on the base to a streetlight and waited. For some reason, I was in no hurry. It felt like an honor to watch them, and to watch the evening light slowly fade.

A woman walked by.

“Are you the mother?” she asked.

For ease of explanation, I said, “Yes.”

“So beautiful,” she said.

So, I thought, she saw it too, and they’re not her children. This Beauty of the ever-extending moment, which is indeed so rapidly fading, young boys soon to be men, thinking they already are, mellow in the evening light, taking their time placing the board, ramping down.

The beauty of that moment was the innocence of it, the easy and aimless Being of it. There was nothing else. But even within that moment, the light was going down, the cold wind picking up.

And Rilke, later:

Angels (they say) don’t know whether it is the living

they are moving among, or the dead.

(Mitchell’s translation)

Because “the eternal torrent/whirls all ages along in it/through both realms forever.” In other words, time is just a medium we’re passing through. The Now is ineffable, untouchable. You can be in it, you can be one with the Now, but you cannot grasp it. Beauty is related -- you think if you get near to Beauty, it will touch you with its graces, or in a Duino Elegy, it will “serenely/distain to destroy.” To be touched by Beauty is to be destroyed. And to be destroyed, is to be reborn. Over and over again.