Before the poet Rainer Maria Rilke mentored an aspiring nineteen-year-old writer in the correspondence that became Letters to a Young Poet (which in turn mentored generations of later artists), Rilke himself soaked up the advice, guidance, and shining light of an elder: the scultpor Auguste Rodin. In the loving New York Review of Books essay by John Banville on a new translation of Letters ("burnished, elegant ... the fifth English version, and likely to become the standard one), the story of the Rilke-Rodin partnership emerges. Despite -- or because of -- their different artistic mediums and ethnicities, they seem to have found the fire of creative connection.
No doubt Rilke was seeking to treat (the "young poet" Franz) Kappus as he in turn had been treated by Rodin, the grand maître for the sake of whose wisdom and patronage he had been willing to endure the torments of Paris the previous year. Rodin had taught the young poet valuable lessons, lessons that were to sustain him throughout his artistic life.
When Rilke came to Paris he was still a High Romantic, brother-in-art to the likes of Novalis, Klopstock, and the Goethe of Young Werther. Rodin, almost offhandedly, pulled the young dreamer’s head out of the clouds and knocked some common sense into him. For the sculptor, work was everything: Il faut travailler—toujours travailler was his motto. As for inspiration, Rilke wrote, the mere possibility of it he “shakes off indulgently and with an ironic smile, suggesting that there is no such thing….” These assertions must have struck Rilke like thunderbolts. Suddenly it was not the emotion or the idea that mattered, but the thing. Rodin was, above all, a maker of things:
And this way of looking and of living is ingrained so firmly in him because he attained it as a craftman; as he was achieving in his art that element of infinite simplicity, of total indifference to subject matter, he was achieving in himself that great justice, that equilibrium in the face of the world that no name can shake. Since he had been granted the gift of seeing things in everything, he had also acquired the ability to construct things; and therein lies the greatness of his art.
For Rilke, too, the Ding now became paramount. For him, “the history of endless generations of things could be sensed beneath the history of mankind,” and his ambition was “to be a real person among real things” and thus cure himself of what he wonderfully called his “breathing difficulties of the soul.” It was Rodin, so the story goes, who urged Rilke to take himself to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and pick one of the animals in the zoo there and study it in all its movements and moods until he knew it as thoroughly as a creature or thing could be known, and then write about it. The result was “The Panther,” one of Rilke’s early masterpieces and as revolutionary in its way as anything by Eliot or Pound.
Despite what he had learned at the marble knee of Rodin, however, Rilke had no illusions about the solitariness of the artistic project, or its difficulty—“we must hew to what is difficult; everything that lives hews to it”—and was determined to impress his young correspondent with the hard facts of the creative life:
Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There’s only one way to proceed. Go inside yourself. Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you. Above all, ask yourself at your most silent hour of night: must I write?
Thus we see, behind this admonition, the journey into the self that Rilke had ventured on, and the complex aesthetic of inwardness that would find its comprehensive and triumphant expression in the Duino Elegies. The world of things is there, ineluctable, irrefutable, yet waiting on us and our transformative powers to help it achieve its ultimate apotheosis:
Erde, ist es nicht dies, was du willst: unsichtbar
in uns erstehn?—Ist es dein Traum nicht,
einmal unsichtbar zu sein?—Erde! unsichtbar!
Earth, isn’t that what you want: to arise within us,
invisible? Isn’t it your dream
to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!
Rilke wrote a lyrical monograph on Rodin, drawing heavily from there time together in Paris. Rilke was in his twenties at the time (Rodin was 62), and recently married. He focuses on Rodin's artistic development and his sense of the human body: wholeness vs. incompleteness, where parts connect, armlessness, how bodies kiss. He describes Rodin as "“a worker whose only desire was to penetrate with all his forces into the humble and difficult meaning of his tools.” Here is Rilke on Rodin's hands.
There are among the works of Rodin hands, single, small hands which, without belonging to a body, are alive. Hands that rise, irritated and in wrath; hands whose five bristling fingers seem to bark like the five jaws of a dog of Hell. Hands that walk, sleeping hands, and hands that are awakening; criminal hands, tainted with hereditary disease; and hands that are tired and will do no more, and have lain down in some corner like sick animals that know no one can help them. But hands are a complicated organism, a delta into which many divergent streams of life rush together in order to pour themselves into the great storm of action. There is a history of hands; they have their own culture, their particular beauty; one concedes to them the right of their own development, their own needs, feelings, caprices and tendernesses. Rodin, knowing through the education which he has given himself that the entire body consists of scenes of life, of a life that may become in every detail individual and great, has the power to give to any part of his vibrating surface the independence of a whole. As the human body is to Rodin an entirety only as long as a common action stirs all of its parts and forces, so on the other hand portions of different bodies that cling to one another from an inner necessity merge into one organism. A hand laid on another’s shoulder or thigh does not any more belong to the body from which it came — from this body and from the object which it touches or seizes something new originates, a new thing that has no name and belongs to no one.