Rainer Maria Rilke
I am conscious that I begin to repeat myself, bringing favourite poets back for an encore - Rilke is actually booked for four appearances, and each will be very different. But themes and patterns inevitably emerge in any anthology, however individual the individual pieces may appear to be, when selected on their individual merits and significance. So favourite poets and prose-writers recur, but more especially it is their relationships with other poets and writers that has become a theme; Eliot and Borges, for example, have made several appearances, but only once as the poet; and now Rilke makes his second appearance, again picking up that theme of writers addressing other writers, whether directly or indirectly.
To Lou Andreas-Salomé, on her birthday
I held myself too open, I forgot
that outside not just things exist and animals
fully at ease in themselves, whose eyes
reach from their lives' roundedness no differently
than portraits do from frames; forgot that I
with all I did incessantly crammed
looks into myself; looks, opinion, curiosity.
Who knows: perhaps eyes form in space
and look on everywhere. Ah, only plunged toward you
does my face cease being on display, grows
into you and twines on darkly, endlessly,
into your sheltered heart.
As one puts a handkerchief before pent-in-breath -
no: as one presses it against a wound
out of which the whole of life, in a single gush,
wants to stream, I held you to me: I saw you
turn red from me. How could anyone express
what took place between us? We made up for everything
there was never time for. I matured strangely
in every impulse of unperformed youth,
and you, love, had wildest childhood over my heart.
Memory won’t suffice here: from those moments
there must be layers of pure existence
on my being's floor, a precipitate
from that immensely overfilled solution.
For I don't think back; all that I am
stirs me because of you. I don't invent you
at sadly cooled-off places from which
you've gone away; even your not being there
is warm with you and more real and more
than a privation. Longing leads out too often
into vagueness. Why should I cast myself, when,
for all I know, your influence falls on me,
gently, like moonlight on a window seat.
This poem is neither Rilke's best nor by any means my favourite (Duino Elegies, Sonnets To Orpheus...) – but the poem is not here because it is by Rilke; it is here because it is about Lou Andreas Salomé, another of the many great women writers and thinkers whom European civilisation overlooks precisely because they are women; and because I can never resist uncovering literary genealogies.
Lou Andreas Salomé was, I repeat, one of the remarkable women of the - well, of any epoch in human history really, but specifically the late 19th/early 20th century; so much so that the Nazis assumed she was a Jewess, though in fact she was a Huguenot. Born in St Petersburg, she persuaded the Dutch preacher Hendrik Gillot to teach her theology, philosophy and world religions, as well as French and German literature – she was just seventeen. Gillot fell in love with her, even spoke of divorcing his wife and eloping with her. Her mother took her to Zurich, partly to get away from Gillot, partly to obtain a university education, partly for her health - she had begun coughing blood.
Four years later, in Rome, she established an academic commune with the author Paul Rée, Friedrich Nietzsche joining them shortly afterwards. Salomé’s study of Nietzsche was published in 1884, but her relationship with him was over by then, again in flight from an older man too much in love with her.
Exactly who fell madly in love with her (most men who met her) would take too long to write; whose love she responded to remains unclear, though she and Rée were unquestionably lovers, her marriage to Friedrich Carl Andreas was just as unquestionably unconsummated, and it was his jealousy of Andreas that drove Rée away. Her friendship with Helene von Druskowitz, the second woman to receive a philosophy doctorate in Zurich, has been alleged to have been Sapphic, though this is probably just prurience. Were she and her colleague psycho-analysts Sigmund Freud and Victor Tausk lovers? Probably not. But she and Rilke were. He was twenty-one when they met, she thirty-six. It was Salomé who began calling him Rainer rather than René, who taught him Russian, who encouraged him to go to Paris and seek out Rodin - whose amanuensis he became - who guided him as he became a poet. Without Salomé there would never have been Rilke. To a very considerable degree, without Salomé there would never have been Freud either, and in many of her ideas she preceded Freud.
Salomé worked as a psycho-analyst until the age of seventy-four, when heart troubles, and then cancer, forced her to stop. She wrote a dozen novels, as well as plays and poems, and essays on her specialist subject that included explorations of female sexuality and the anal-erotic. Her study of Ibsen focused, not surprisingly, on his female characters; her "Hymn To Life" so impressed Nietzsche that he set it to music (extremely badly).
A few days before her death the Gestapo confiscated her library - or it may have been an SA group who destroyed it, shortly after her death. The pretext was that she had been a colleague of Freud, had practiced "Jewish science", and had many books by Jewish authors in her library. The time has come to get her library back into print.
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