Sunday, May 11, 2008

Rilke and T.S. Eliot

Whenever I read Rilke's first Elegy, I can't help but be reminded of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland; some of the sentiments are the same. Both poets are concerned with the condition of modernity, though Rilke is more focused on the spiritual dimension (or lack thereof). Take these lines from Rilke:

It's said that the angels are often unconscious
of whether they're moving among the living
or the dead. (Tr. Graham Good)

What Rilke means by angels is NOT the Christian notion; they are more like impersonal spiritual entities who roam the universe. The angels don't know whether they move among the living or the dead: that is, there is no real difference between the living and the dead. The living are, in a way, dead. Rilke, I believe, would say spiritually dead; we've become spectators to the world and hide from authentic emotion and experience. Thus we are, in a way, "outside" of the world. This is evident from some lines in both the First and Second Elegies:

Angels are terrifying...


All we have left [in our interpreted world] is perhaps a certain tree on a slope
to look at day after day; or yesterday's streets,
or a steadfastly loyal old habit...

From the Second Elegy:

The days of Tobias are over...


But now, if the dreaded archangel took one step
in our direction from behind the stars,
our pounding hearts would kill us. (All tr. Graham Good)

Rilke seems to think we have lost touch with the spiritual world; spirits are terrifying and the days of the archangel Tobias are over. The fact that Tobias' days are over could be seen as a metaphor for spirituality generally; we would die if spirituality came too close (i.e. we can't handle it anymore). Moreover, all we have are old habits and routines; there is nothing new at all, only the same old drill day in and day out. One could argue there is something "inauthentic" about this; we don't seek anything new but remain stuck in our old habits.

Also, in connection with the inauthenticity theme, we have a habit of fleeing from "our Fate"; we do this through Love:

But they [lovers] only use each other to hide from their Fate.

Our fate is "the Night" which is made reference to a few lines before. The night is, death, solitude, etc; anything that individualizes us. Even the dead, for a time, need us and our comfort; Rilke tells us to be attentive to those who passed on early and who now live in a "strange world"; they want us to "correct the injustice that hinders their movement" (paraphrase).

Compare these lines of Rilke with some from The Wasteland:

He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying


A crowd flowed over London Bridge; so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Eliot seems to be trying to collapse the distinction between the living and the dead; this is perhaps most apparent in the second quote. The living are somehow not really alive; they are dead to the world in some way, which seems to be a condition of modernity. Eliot is constantly making references to a world without water; water is needed for life and renewal and thus a lack thereof would mean one cannot be 'renewed' or even fully alive.

The general sentiment of Rilke and Eliot seems to be the same; both would say that the people of modernity are not quite alive, not living authentically. Rilke's criticism seems to be more focused; he is concerned with the lack of spirituality in modernity, while Eliot seems to paint with broad strokes and never really focuses on the root of the problem he addresses in the Wasteland. They both attempt a diagnosis of the modern world and both come up with a rather negative one. One last note on Rilke: if you're familiar with Heidegger, you can perhaps see why he would like him. One condition of modernity, according to Rilke, is that we flee from authentic emotion and experience: death included.

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